USA: Reporting marine casualties

Port news

Published: 30 July 2015

On 22 July 2015 the US Coast Guard issued a Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) clarifying the requirements for reporting marine casualties in US navigable waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Under US regulations, "marine casualties" are broadly defined and include any occurrence involving a vessel that results in injury or loss of life, grounding or stranding, collision, explosion, fire, loss or reduction of electrical power, propulsion or steering capabilities, any circumstance affecting the vessel's seaworthiness, and any incident involving significant harm to the environment.

The NVIC provides a detailed outline of Coast Guard policy and interpretive guidance for each category of reportable marine casualty.

For example, "loss of main propulsion, primary steering or any associated component" not only includes occurrences where the applicable component or system unexpectedly fails, but also situations where the component or system is intentionally shut down as a preventive measure.

Pain or sickness caused by an illness (such as cold and flu) or pre-existing medical condition (such as heart attack or stroke) does not fall within the scope of the reporting requirements for "injuries" unless it results in physical injury requiring professional medical treatment beyond first aid.

"Significant harm to the environment" means discharges of oil that violate water quality standards or cause a sheen on the water surface, or discharges of hazardous substances in equal to or in excess of the reportable quantities under federal regulations.

Although some marine casualties may not meet the criteria for reporting, vessel owners and operators must consider whether such incidents must nevertheless be reported as "hazardous conditions," such as falls overboard that do not result in injury or death but may create a hazardous condition when the vessel maneuvers to recover the individual in a congested waterway.

Another example is a "bump and go" grounding where the vessel touches bottom momentarily but is able to free itself by maneuvering its engines without damage to the ship or the environment.

Such incidents may not be reportable as marine casualties but should be reported as "hazardous conditions".

US regulations require that marine casualties be reported immediately. "Immediately" is not defined in the regulations, but the NVIC clarifies that "immediately" means "as soon as practicable without delay".

Examples of potential violations of this requirement include failing to report an injury until the vessel returns to port or delaying the reporting of an engine failure after switching to low sulfur fuel until the ship reaches its berth.

The NVIC also clarifies how reports should be made. Whenever possible notifications should be made to the Command Center of the Coast Guard Sector where the casualty occurs, however, Vessel Traffic Services or District Command Centers are appropriate alternatives. Contact information for Coast Guard Sectors can be found in the Port Directory on the Coast Guard's Homeport website. Casualties that occur outside US navigable waters but in the US EEZ should be made to the Coast Guard unit that is geographically closest to the incident location.

Failure to report a marine casualty as required by the regulations may lead to significant civil and criminal penalties.

As the NVIC points out, "if there is any doubt whether an occurrence is a reportable marine casualty, the Coast Guard strongly  encourages responsible industry parties to contact the nearest OCMI [Officer in Charge, Marine Inspection] (typically via the nearest Coast Guard Command Center) to determine an appropriate response".

In other words, WHEN IN DOUBT, REPORT!