• Sunday, February 17, 2019

Safety Management Systems for small tugs in Canada...By David S. Jarrett, A Vancouver Lawyer with Bernard LLP

By BCShippingNews 15 March 2018
David S. Jarrett, A Vancouver Lawyer with Bernard LLP
The TSB’s position was illustrated in a recently released TSB Marine Investigation Report relating to a tug fire and crew abandonment incident...

In keeping with the safety and training theme and its special focus on the Fraser River in this month’s edition of BC Shipping News, this article will discuss the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s (TSB) position on the implementation of Safety Management Systems (SMS) and inspections for tugs under 15 gross tonnage (GT).

The TSB’s position was illustrated in a recently released TSB Marine Investigation Report relating to a tug fire and crew abandonment incident on the Fraser River in 2016.

Overview of SMS

Generally, SMS is a set of documents that are prepared by vessel owners with and for their masters and crew regarding safe vessel operation. As discussed below, SMS has been in use for deep sea vessels for some time. However, SMS use in smaller Canadian vessels [and sometimes referred to as Domestic Safety Management (DSM)], such as tugs under 15 GT is not required by Canadian law. SMS is designed to be a comprehensive system to manage vessel safety and includes information, policies and procedures relating to the following:

  • Day-to-day vessel operation;
  • Vessel details;
  • Work performed by the vessel and how;
  • Hazard identification;
  • Risk assessment and management;
  • Emergency procedures;
  • Drills;
  • Crew training; and
  • Record keeping regarding things like incidents, drills and training.

In general, SMS is currently required for the following types of vessels: passenger ships, tankers, bulk carriers, gas carriers, chemical tankers, oil tankers and other cargo ships, all 500 GT and above, operating on international voyages or in international waters. SMS is mandatory pursuant to the International Safety Management Code, an international convention that is in force in Canada.

Canadian law does not require tugs less than 15 GT to operate under an SMS or to be inspected by Transport Canada. Notwithstanding that, such vessels must be compliant with vessel operation and construction regulations made pursuant to the Canada Shipping Act, 2001. Although Transport Canada Marine inspectors, and not TSB officers, can conduct inspections to confirm compliance with those regulations, not all vessels are inspected. Transport Canada targeted small tugs on the West Coast for increased inspection in early 2017. The regulatory standards for initial installation and maintenance of machinery on tugs under 15 GT are not as detailed as the standards for larger vessels and a vessel’s owner or operator is not required to notify Transport Canada of installation or repair work that is not a major modification or repair (i.e., that does not affect water tight integrity or stability or does not substantially change the capacity or size of the vessel).

TSB position on SMS in tugs under 15 GT

The TSB is an independent federal government agency whose purpose is to improve safety in the marine, pipeline, air and rail transportation sectors. Among other things, the TSB conducts investigations into marine occurrences such as groundings, collisions, fires, injury events, and reports on findings as to causes and contributing factors of the same. It does not determine civil or criminal liability for an occurrence. In addition to its investigative capacity, the TSB monitors safety trends and makes recommendations to improve safety.

The TSB publishes reports relating to its marine investigations on its website (www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/marine/index.asp). Generally, these reports describe particulars of the vessel and the occurrence, company operations, damages sustained in the occurrence, the applicable regulatory regime, analysis as to cause, findings as to causes and contributing factors, and suggested safety action. TSB has placed the issue of SMS and its advantages on its “Watchlist” since 2010. Items on the TSB Watchlist are those that the TSB flagged as key safety issues.

Unlike Canada, the United States recently passed regulations that set out new compliance requirements relating to inspection and SMS for all U.S. towing vessels over 26 feet. These regulations also apply to tugs under 26 feet that are moving oil or bulk hazardous material. This was apparently in response to the fact that 67 per cent of collisions, allisions and groundings involve towing vessels (TSB Marine Investigation Report M16P0241, at footnote 9). Although it is unclear as to whether that statistic was based on U.S. or Canadian data, presumably the TSB is concerned that smaller tugs may be flying under the compliance and inspection radar, and therefore involved in more incidents. Although no regulations are in place in Canada, Transport Canada is currently considering revising compliance programs for tugs of less than 15 GT but no specific dates have been announced for the proposed revisions as of yet.

A review of TSB’s published Marine Investigation Reports from the last few years shows that the TSB continues to suggest that all commercial marine operators, presumably including those operating vessels under 15 GT, have proper and robust SMS programs in place that are followed and adhered to following implementation. TSB’s Marine Investigation Report M16P0241, released on September 12, 2017, dealt with a fire and abandonment of a tug on the Fraser River in 2016 (the “Report”).

This is the most recent report relating to a tug incident that is available on the TSB website. It sets out TSB’s current view on the issue of increased regulatory oversight for tugs under 15 GT, including its position in favour of SMS. The incident involved a tug towing log booms up the Fraser River. During the voyage, leaking diesel caused a fire in the engine room that was subsequently extinguished. The crew had to abandon the vessel but apparently there were no injuries.

Although the tug’s manager had a voluntary SMS in place, the Report noted jammed covers for exhaust trunking, an engine room exhaust vent that could not be sealed and heat detectors that had not been tested. In addition, the Report noted that modifications had been made to the vessel prior to the incident, including installation of a new generator and fittings that had not been inspected or certified by Transport Canada or a classification society/manufacturer’s representative. The Report found that the fire was caused by the parting of the fuel line tubing that sprayed diesel fuel onto the vessel’s generator. In addition, there were other equipment issues relating to fuel shut-off valves and the failure of the master and crew to conduct emergency fire drills on a regular basis as set out in the SMS Manual. The Report also noted that the potential issues with the fuel lines were not discovered by the manager’s voluntary SMS program prior to the fire.

The Report set out the following findings as to risk (page 17):

  • If components for emergency equipment and machinery are installed or replaced by personnel without adequate guidance or knowledge of industry standards, and such equipment is subsequently put into service without being inspected by a competent person, there is a risk that the installation will be unsafe.
  • If adequate regulatory oversight is not applied to tugs of less than 15 gross tonnage, instances of unsafe equipment and operating conditions may continue to occur, putting people, assets, and the environment at risk.
  • If emergency drills are not routinely practised or evaluated, there is a risk that inadequacies with emergency equipment will go unnoticed, and that crew will be unprepared in an emergency.
  • From reading the Report and earlier TSB reports, the TSB clearly feels that the current regulatory regime for tugs under 15 GT can, and should, be improved.


In light of the recent American legislative changes and the TSB’s frequently stated position that SMS and inspections can effectively manage risk and make marine transportation safer, including having the issue of SMS on its Watchlist, it is likely that both the TSB and Transport Canada will continue to suggest that Canada adopt a similar regulatory regime that allows for a more robust inspection and compliance regime for tugs under 15 GT.

David S. Jarrett is a Maritime Lawyer and Partner at Bernard LLP and can be reached at jarrett@bernardllp.ca.