The American Waterways Operators disputed a maritime union's claim that the high percentage of inland shipping accidents caused by human error underscores the need for coastal and inland crews to be licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

"That is absolutely incorrect," said Joseph Farrell, president of the waterways operators, a national group representing the coastal and inland barge and towing industry and the shipyards that build and service their vessels.Mr. Farrell said his organization supports legislation to require inland vessels to be equipped with radar, compasses and charts. But it opposes a bill backed by the Seafarers International Union that would require entry-level employees on inland vessels to be licensed by the Coast Guard, he said.

"That bill is a labor bill aimed at opportunities to expand their membership," Mr. Farrell said. "It has nothing to do with safety. If we believed it would promote safety, we would have been behind it long ago."

Mr. Farrell was responding to a Journal of Commerce report last week on the Seafarers' safety claims about the waterway industry.

In a recent issue of their monthly newspaper, the Seafarers claimed that merchant mariners with Coast Guard documents "have a better safety record and are less susceptible to injury and death than men and women working aboard tugs and tows."

The Seafarers backed their claim with an analysis of Coast Guard data, which showed that human factors caused 58 percent of the tug and towboat accidents between the late 1970s and 1991. That was a higher percentage than in accidents involving Great Lakes and ocean vessels.

The figures underline the need for all mariners aboard inland vessels to be licensed, the union said.

Mr. Farrell said the legislation supported by the Seafarers would not affect vessel operations because the bill only affects personnel serving as deckhands and cooks. Captains and officers on those vessels already are required to hold licenses, and all personnel on inland vessels are required by law to undergo drug and alcohol testing, he said.

The Seafarers' initiative "would only steepen the mountain of unnecessary government regulations," Mr. Farrell said in recent testimony before Congress.

Mr. Farrell said he did not question the Coast Guard figures but how they were interpreted by the union. According to his organization, barge transportation "is statistically the safest form of transportation both in absolute numbers of accidents and in lives lost."

The issue of inland waterway safety was rekindled by the Sept. 22 derailment of an Amtrak train on a bridge near Mobile, Ala. Investigators said it occurred shortly after a barge, lost in fog, rammed the bridge and knocked it out of alignment.