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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

US Coast Guard Ready to Move New Anti-SASH Policy

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

May 25, 2023

(Credit: Deven Leigh Ellis / U.S. Navy)

(Credit: Deven Leigh Ellis / U.S. Navy)

In May, the U.S. Coast Guard will start a strengthened and pointedly direct anti-SASH campaign that will extend across the maritime industry. SASH is an acronym for sexual assault/sexual harassment, and this new effort adds muscle to Marine Safety Information Bulletin (MSIB Number: 1-23) "Reporting Sexual Misconduct on U.S. Vessels" released in February. The new bulletin supersedes a previous one from late 2021.

USCG personnel will be very deliberate in making sure that all maritime operators are aware of MSIB 1-23. The core message: report all sexual misconduct and harassment. Maritime operators will want to pay close attention to the Coast Guard's message. Noncompliance has significant risks, from monetary penalties to criminal proceedings to loss of a maritime license.

This strengthened anti-SASH focus follows new policy directives set by Congress within the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (see Bill text, pages 1751-1762) which requires the responsible entity of a vessel—the owner, master or managing operator—to report to the Coast Guard any complaint or incident of harassment, sexual harassment or sexual assault. The Coast Guard has established multiple reporting options and will respond to any reports of sexual misconduct. Offenders face criminal prosecution and/or possible actions that could lead to the loss of a person’s merchant mariner credentials.

Commander Amanda Fahrig is the Chief of the Investigations Division at USCG headquarters in Washington, D.C. and a leader within this new initiative. She was asked how the Coast Guard will roll out its new initiative or otherwise inform mariners of the anti-SASH effort. "The outreach is in tandem with our mission," she replied, explaining further that "this campaign is informational in nature with a primary goal of ensuring a respectful and safe work environment for all seafarers." USCG personnel will provide a copy of MSIB 1-23 during inspections, investigations, industry meetings and other opportunities.

Fahrig emphasized three important anti-SASH changes within the 2023 NDAA:

  • One, the definition of "responsible entity" is expanded, i.e., the person required to report a SASH incident to the CG. As noted above, NDAA requires reports from vessel owners, masters or managing operators. Previously, reports were required only from vessel masters or individuals in charge of a U.S. commercial vessel. Also, fines have increased for failure to report. Fines can now go to $50,000; the previous max was $10,000. And initial reports require follow-up reports, within 10 days, to the Commandant of the Coast Guard. This subsequent report must provide detailed information about actions taken after becoming aware of a SASH incident, including the results of an investigation and actions, if any, taken against an offending individual.
  • Second, centralized reporting. All reports will be channeled to one location for review and follow up – to CGIS, the Coast Guard Investigative Services.
  • Third, the CG’s Investigations and Enforcement Division (which Fahrig oversees) gains expanded authority. This division manages the Suspension & Revocation (S&R) program for personnel action investigations against mariner credentials. Now, the Coast Guard does not have to rely on outside sources to define SASH, such as a company’s individual policy.

Fahrig expanded on this important issue. She explained that the Coast Guard has independent S&R authority. Even if a mariner is acquitted of SASH charges in other legal or agency actions, that acquittal is not binding in S&R and the Coast Guard may still take S&R action. For acquittals in criminal cases, the burden of proof (preponderance of the evidence or “more likely than not”) in an S&R proceeding, is much lower than a criminal proceeding (beyond a reasonable doubt). If a credentialed mariner is prosecuted and found guilty, the Coast Guard Administrative Law Judge may consider that conviction as evidence in an S&R action against that credential.

Marine News readers likely recall the Maritime Administrations’ EMBARC program – “Every Mariner Builds a Respectful Culture.” EMBARC is an anti-SASH program established to protect U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (MMA) cadets during their Sea Year training on commercial vessels (see Marine News, May 2022.)

Fahrig was asked about EMBARC and the Coast Guard’s new anti-SASH initiative. She said the Coast Guard is working closely with MARAD regarding EMBARC-related topics. Whereas EMBARC was cadet-focused, it is the Coast Guard’s goal to expand similar protections to all mariners. Fahrig pointed out that many EMBARC program features are incorporated into the 2023 NDAA.

Commander Amanda Fahrig is the Chief of the Investigations Division at U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard)

Importantly, while MSIB 1-23 deals with the CG’s reporting and investigative process the 2023 NDAA establishes a broader anti-SASH context, setting additional demands within a ship’s operational and living environments. These demands deserve a close look. The Act requires vessel operators to establish an anti-SASH shipboard culture and invest in and implement the controls and monitoring that make SASH reporting easier rather than something to agonize over because of possible consequences and retribution.

For example, in Sec. 4901 the Act sets surveillance requirements. In general, a vessel owner needs to install video and audio surveillance equipment by 2024 or during its next scheduled drydock, whichever is later. Another requirement is to add a master key control system and to establish a logbook and recordkeeping that tracks who has access to this system. If requested, this information has to be made available to law enforcement, including the FBI and Coast Guard.

Another new set of anti-SASH demands makes amendments to a vessel’s safety management system (SMS). The NDAA stipulates SASH reporting to be part of SMS “procedures and training requirements.” Noncompliance has consequences.

A vessel’s Safety Management Certificate can be suspended for three months if, during an audit, the relevant SASH provisions are found lacking. However, the vessel can continue to operate for those 3 months. But if compliance is still deemed inadequate during a follow up audit, the certificate can be revoked. A similar review, process and timeline is set for Documents of Compliance, which are linked to the IMO’s International Safety Management codes.

“Some of the specific requirements from the SASH portion of the NDAA necessitate regulatory development,” Fahrig said. “Relevant statutes permit the Coast Guard to promulgate regulations that implement and enforce the NDAA.” The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security can take action or otherwise follow up if a SMS is found lacking or a responsible party is otherwise out of compliance.

As noted, Commander Fahrig said the Coast Guard’s initiative program rollout this May is informational in nature. But surely, the information is not to be overlooked.

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