Navigating the Safer Seas Act

The Safer Seas Act (SSA) was enacted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year of 2023 to combat sexual assault and harassment (SASH) aboard vessels in the wake of the Midshipman-X scandal that rocked the maritime industry in September 2021.

The SSA includes significant changes for those in the maritime industry, specifically for vessel owners and operators. Notably, it creates new reporting mandates and procedures for owners and operators of U.S.-flagged commercial service vessels to report SASH incidents. The Act also empowers the United States Coast Guard (USCG) to revoke or suspend the credentials of those found guilty of SASH offenses. The bulk of the SSA’s requirements–including reporting, signage, crew training, SMS updates, and master key control systems–are already in effect, making it imperative that maritime industry leaders understand what is expected of them to ensure that policies and procedures have been developed, documented, and implemented.

The USCG recently released MSIB 13-23 which contains a “Frequently Asked Questions” section updated with information relevant to the implementation of the below described policy letters and laws.

Employer Responsibilities

Following the enactment of the SSA, the USCG has explained the Safer Seas Act through Marine Safety Information Bulletin 1-23, “Reporting Sexual Misconduct on U.S. Vessels” and—more recently released—MSIB 13-23, “Coast Guard Policies to Address Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response on Vessels” in conjunction with multiple Policy Letters.[1] All mariners should be aware of these significant changes to the law.

Mandatory Reporting Requirements

The responsible entity of a vessel[2] that knowingly fails to report a SASH incident is liable to the United States Government for a civil penalty of $25,000 plus $500 for each day of noncompliance, up to $50,000 per violation.

WHO? The SSA mandates that commercial vessel owners, operators, masters, and employers of seafarers must report complaints and incidents of “harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault ‘that violate’ any law or company policy.” This broad language expands the scope of reportable incidents for which industry leaders should err on the side of caution and report all forms of harassment:

  • The USCG through CGIS Tips, via the CGIS email at CGISTIPS@uscg.mil, or by calling the National Command Center (NCC) 24/7 phone number (202-327-2100); and
  • The appropriate officer or agency of the government of the country in whose waters the incident occurs.

WHAT? The report must include all of the following information:

  • The name, official position, and contact information of the person making the report.
  • The name and official number of the documented vessel.
  • The time and date of the incident.
  • The geographic position or location of the vessel when the incident occurred.
  • A brief description of the alleged sexual harassment or sexual assault being reported.

WHEN? The responsible entity must make a report immediately after gaining knowledge of a sexual assault or sexual harassment incident.

AND THEN? No later than 10 days after making a report, the responsible entity must then submit a Company After-Action Summary, which is a document with detailed information to describe the actions taken by such entity after becoming aware of the sexual assault or sexual harassment incident, including the results of any investigation into the complaint or incident and any action taken against the offending individual.

Personnel Training

The SSA mandates that vessel owners or employers must integrate comprehensive SASH policies into their safety management system manuals, as well as require annual SASH training on prevention, bystander intervention, reporting, response and investigation.

Surveillance Requirements & Response Training

The deadline to comply with the surveillance equipment requirement is December 23, 2024, or a vessel’s next dry docking, whichever date is later.[3] The vessel owner must maintain all surveillance records for at least one year. If any surveillance records are related to an alleged SASH incident, they must be preserved for at least five years from the incident date.

The SSA stipulates that video and audio surveillance systems be installed in all passageways “into which doors from staterooms open” on commercial, non-passenger carrying vessels – excluding certain commercial fishing vessels. In addition, vessel owners and employers are required to train crewmembers in responding to and reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment. The following vessels covered by this requirement include:

  • Documented vessels with overnight accommodations for at least 10 individuals on board that are (a) on a voyage of at least 600 miles that crosses seaward of the Boundary Line or (b) at least 24 meters (79 feet) in overall length and required to have a load line under Title 46, Chapter 51
  • Documented vessels of at least 500 gross tons … on an international voyage
  • Vessels with overnight accommodations for at least 10 individuals on board that are operating for no less than 72 hours on waters superjacent to the Outer Continental Shelf

The USCG advises that effective surveillance is not simply having a system in place but having sufficient quality of hardware to ensure intelligibility of information captured. The USCG released CG-CVC Policy Letter 23-05 to provide initial guidance on the installation of surveillance requirements and other provisions to meet the mandatory deadlines.

Master Key Control System

Applicable vessels are now required to establish a master key control system and related provisions for use of master keys. The Coast Guard released CGCVC Policy Letter 23-06 to provide initial guidance on the installation and management of a master key control system and information retention.

Safety Management System (SMS)[4]

Companies and vessels should have documented policies and procedures within the SMS to ensure compliance with the reporting and after-action summary requirements of 46 U.S.C. § 10104 related to harassment, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. These procedures should be documented as soon as possible in the SMS. The Coast Guard or Recognized Organizations may conduct investigatory audits as required by 46 U.S.C. § 10104(e) and may suspend or revoke a Document of Compliance (DOC) or Safety Management Certificate (SMC) in accordance with 46 U.S.C. § 3203(c).

Display of Information in Crew Berthing Areas

Crew berthing and washing areas must now prominently display details concerning company policies, how to report issues, and steps to respond to sexual assault and sexual harassment. The Coast Guard released CG-CVC Policy Letter 23-04 to provide initial guidance on the applicability and implementation of these requirements.

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[1] Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance (CG-CVC) Policy Letters.

[2] The “responsible entity of a vessel” means the owner, master, or managing operator of a documented vessel engaged in commercial service; or the employer or seafarer on such a vessel. § 46 USC 10104(g).

[3] The USCG has stated that they consider a dry docking to mean anytime a vessel is out of the water, not necessarily the next scheduled survey. This means that if a vessel has been out of the water since December 23, 2022, or will be out of the water before December 23, 2024, then its deadline to install the required surveillance equipment is December 23, 2024, even if it was dry docked for a reason other than a scheduled survey.

[4] The Coast Guard updated CG-CVC-WI-004 – Flag State Interpretations of the ISM Code, which includes discussion on the requirements in 46 U.S.C. § 10104 and 46 U.S.C. § 3203.