Three Years After El Faro, "More Must be Done" to Improve Safety

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Published Oct 2, 2018 9:37 AM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, the Coast Guard's head of prevention policy urged the American maritime industry to make a "strong and enduring commitment" to make sure that the lessons learned from the loss of the con/ro El Faro sinking are not forgotten. Three years have passed since she went down on October 1, 2015, and one year has passed since the Coast Guard published its recommendations for preventing similar casualties. Congress has moved to enshrine many of these hard-learned lessons into law. 

"We are making substantial progress. But we are not done. A strong and enduring commitment is needed at all levels of the safety framework," said Vice Adm. John Nadeau in a statement. "Every crew and operator must commit to safety and embrace their responsibilities under the ISM Code. Classification societies must fully and effectively perform their duties. And the Coast Guard must sustain its efforts, deliver needed improvements, increase accountability, and ensure safety standards are upheld."

According to Nadeau, the Coast Guard has made progress in tightening its oversight of classification societies and the Alternate Compliance Program, which allows class to perform certain of the USCG's own regulatory inspections. One class society holds the overwhelming majority of ACP contracts. Last year, to check up on the ACP's effectiveness in achieving compliance, the Coast Guard picked 44 ACP-enrolled vessels - including deep draft ships in the MARAD, MSC, MSP and commercial fleets - for additional scrutiny. The inspectors found notable improvements, particularly the voluntary replacement of outmoded open lifeboats with modern motor enclosed lifeboats.  

However, inspectors also issued about 650 deficiencies, including citations for serious issues like load line discrepancies, firefighting system problems and inoperable watertight fittings. Seven ships with the most serious maintenance shortcomings were subjected to an additional SMS audit, and five had their COIs revoked. "Most of the problems involve the basics and should have been addressed by the crew and operating company through proper preventative maintenance under a healthy safety culture," Adm. Nadeau wrote. His department plans to continue its risk-based inspections program and its stepped-up scrutiny of operators' Safety Management Systems. 

In addition, the Coast Guard is tightening oversight of ACP-enrolled class societies. Beginning in January, the USCG stood up a new unit for class society regulation, called the Third Party Oversight Review Team (T-PORT). The team has created new policies to guide class inspectors and Coast Guard marine inspectors in their duties, ramped up training for Coast Guard auditors, and drafted new measurement tools for class society performance. As recommended by former Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft, the service has also created a permanent office for class society oversight, and it is boosting the ranks of its marine inspectors to provide enough staffing for its regulatory program. 

After the conclusion of the El Faro investigation, Adm. Zukunft called on industry and government to “move with a sense of urgency" to make changes. That mandate remains, and "it is appropriate to pause and reflect on this tragic and preventable accident, and challenge ourselves to ensure we are all taking action needed to prevent future casualties," Adm. Nadeau wrote.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.