What Maritime Workers Need to Know About Benzene Exposure on the Job

Jones Act May 31, 2023

Benzene is a cancer-causing chemical that is used in a wide variety of industrial applications, including applications in the maritime setting. Fuels, oils, solvents and numerous other products used throughout boats, ships and barges contain benzene—often in potentially dangerous quantities and concentrations.

As a maritime worker, it is important to be aware of the health risks associated with benzene. It is also important to know where you might encounter benzene—and what you can do (and what your employer should do) to minimize your risk of developing a type of cancer called acute myeloid leukemia (AML). It is important to be aware of your legal rights as well, as seamen who develop AML due to benzene exposure will often be entitled to significant financial compensation under the Jones Act.

Where You May Encounter Benzene on a Boat, Ship or Barge

Deckhands, barge cleaners and other crew members can encounter benzene just about anywhere onboard a boat, ship or barge. As noted above, benzene is found in many types of fuels and oils—and fumes from fuels and oils can be present throughout barges, container ships, tug boats, push boats and other vessels.

Barge cleaners face particular risks for benzene exposure. Many of the chemicals stored in barges contain benzene, and cleaning these chemicals out of barges in close quarters with limited ventilation magnifies the risk of exposure. Cleaning solvents also contain benzene as well; and, in addition to inhalation of fumes, benzene can also be absorbed through the skin.

Signs and Symptoms of Cancer (AML) Caused By Benzene

Given the substantial risk of benzene exposure on boats, ships and barges, it is important for all seamen to be aware of the signs and symptoms of cancer (specifically, acute myeloid leukemia) caused by benzene. As identified by the American Cancer Society, some of the early warning signs of AML include:

  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss

As the American Cancer Society also notes, “Many signs and symptoms of AML are the result of a shortage of normal blood cells, which happens when the leukemia cells crowd out the normal blood-making cells in the bone marrow.” Over time, this shortage of normal blood cells can cause additional symptoms such as:

  • Difficulty breathing (shortness of breath)
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Feeling cold
  • Headaches
  • Pale skin
  • Weakness or lethargy throughout the body
  • Worsening fatigue  

What Seamen (and Their Employers) Can Do to Mitigate the Risk of Benzene Exposure

To reduce their risk of suffering from AML due to benzene exposure, seamen can wear respirators equipped with cartridges or canisters that are appropriate for their level of exposure. Seamen who may be exposed to cleaning solvents or other chemicals that contain benzene can also wear chemical-resistant clothing and gloves to protect their skin.

Maritime employers should provide all crew members with the equipment they need to do their jobs safely and without the risk of harmful exposure that could lead to a cancer diagnosis. Vessel owners and operators should also ensure that their vessels are in seaworthy condition—including taking steps to ensure adequate ventilation, placing appropriate warnings in exposure areas, and performing maintenance to prevent leaks and other hazards.

If you are exposed to benzene on the job and you experience any of the symptoms listed above, you should report the issue to your employer and see a doctor promptly. You have the right to choose your own doctor under the Jones Act. If you are at sea and have no choice but to see your ship’s doctor, you should arrange to see an independent doctor as soon as possible once you get back to land. Unfortunately, ship doctors don’t always have seamen’s best interests in mind.

When speaking with your doctor, be sure to describe your symptoms in detail and specifically mention your concerns about AML. Tell your doctor how and where you were exposed to benzene, for how long, and whether you were exposed through inhalation or skin contact.

Your Rights Under the Jones Act After Suffering Benzene Exposure on the Job

As we mentioned above, if you are concerned about benzene exposure on the job, it is also important to be aware of your legal rights. If you work onboard any type of boat, ship or barge, you are most likely covered under the Jones Act.

The Jones Act is a federal law that applies to seamen who aren’t covered under state workers’ compensation laws (which only apply to land-based workers). At a minimum, seamen covered under the Jones Act can obtain “no-fault” maintenance and cure benefits when they suffer job-related injuries and illnesses. These benefits cover sick seamen’s medical bills and a portion of their lost wages.

But, in many cases, these benefits are just a small fraction of the total compensation sick seamen are entitled to recover.

Along with maintenance and cure benefits, the Jones Act also allows seamen to file claims for Jones Act negligence and unseaworthiness. While these are fault-based claims (meaning that you must be able to prove that your employer or the vessel’s owner is responsible for your AML), it is possible to prove fault in many benzene exposure cases. When you hire a lawyer to represent you, your lawyer will examine the cause of your exposure, and if your employer or the vessel’s owner is responsible, your lawyer can fight to recover full compensation for your:

  • Medical bills
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of consortium and companionship
  • Loss of enjoyment of life

Contact Us for a Free Consultation About Your Rights Under the Jones Act

Do you need to know more about your legal rights after being exposed to benzene on the job? If so, we encourage you to contact us for a free, no-obligation consultation about filing a claim under the Jones Act. To discuss your claim with an experienced lawyer in confidence, call 800-468-4878 or tell us how we can reach you online now.

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