Offshore Injury Guide for Maritime Workers

Hundreds of thousands of maritime workers go to work each day in the United States and face the dangerous perils that await them when they clock in for the day. Shipyard workers, barge and tug crew members, ship captains, longshoremen, and other maritime workers experience serious accidents and injuries every year, some of which are fatal. 

Industry Hazards Leading to Death, Serious Injury

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), maritime workers, especially those working in marine terminals and ports, have a higher fatality, injury, and illness rate than other categories of workers in the United States. From 2011-2017, the CDC reported that maritime worker deaths occurred at a rate five times that of the U.S. workforce overall. The nonfatal injury rate for maritime workers is double that of the U.S. workforce overall. 

Hazards presented to maritime workers while working on the navigable waters and onshore at shipyards and terminals make the maritime work environment dangerous. Marine workers experience perils and accidents for a variety of different reasons such as from:

  • slips and falls from oily deck surfaces
  • vessel owners and operators failing to maintain a safe and seaworthy vessel
  • exposures to dangerous toxins in holding tanks which may cause diseases such as cancer, 
  • hypothermia and drowning from falling overboard, and, 
  • back, neck, shoulder, and arm injuries from heavy work responsibilities.

Some maritime workers even experience fatalities from working in unsafe environments on vessels. Below are some shocking statistics regarding fatalities and injuries by maritime workers. 

Nationwide Maritime Accidents and Statistics

The maritime industry is one of the most dangerous professional industries. Thousands of marine accidents occur each year causing thousands in damages to property as well as severe injuries to workers and loss of life. Below are some statistics related to maritime accidents according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • There are more than 3,700 martime terminals and 1,400 inter-model connections in the U.S.
  • In 2017 there were about 98,000 workers in marine terminal and operations in the U.S
  • From 2011-2017:
    • Fatal injuries occurred at a rate of 15.9 per 100,000 workers annually (a rate of five times that of other U.S. workers) 
    • Fatal injuries among marine transportation workers occurred at a rate of 18.4 per 100,000 workers (a rate of 6 times the rate of all U.S. workers)
    • Nonfatal injuries/illnesses occurred at a rate of 4,916 per 100,00 workers annually (a rate two times that of other U.S. workers)

This data confirms that safety regulations and precautions are essential to decrease the fatalities and injuries that take place in the maritime industry each year. To help increase safety for maritime workers and decrease accidents overall, various government agencies have published safety guidelines and regulations for vessel owners and operators to follow such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). 

Barge Safety 101

Before departing on any voyage in the navigable waters, the owner and operator of a vessel, such as a barge, should always do safety inspections to ensure the seaworthiness of a vessel. Our law firm has safety checklists available, and we suggest the following as additional resources:  

Additional Resources for Barge Safety

Barge Deck Safety

According to OSHA, “approximately 4,000 deck barges operate in the United States, using different types of winches and other equipment in a variety of operations.” Maritime workers who work aboard vessels experience serious injuries because of unsafe vessels. Many of these injuries could be prevented with property safety protocols, controls, training, and awareness of hazards that exist on vessel decks. 

OSHA has also created safety resources for vessel owners and operators to reference as a resource to use when creating their own safety protocols and inspection checklists. For example, one resource is the OSHA Deck Barge Safety publication (DBS Publication). This publication discusses issues including but not limited to those mentioned below.

Slips, Trips and Falls.

Slips, trips, and falls are common causes of injuries by maritime workers in the United States. Beginning on page 8 of the DBS Publication is a discussion of ways to minimize hazards on vessel decks such as precautions that can be taken while walking, wearing appropriate footgear while onboard a vessel, how to prevent elevated falls, and more. This resource explains that a slip occurs when the “foot slips, usually on a wet or slippery surface . . . and the person falls backward or forward). A trip occurs when something stops the foot from moving forward in a normal walking motion causing the person walking to propel forward. Below are a few recommendations from OSHA to minimize hazards on barge decks:

  • Clean up and/or report spills and wet surfaces on decks immediately
  • Be careful when stacking materials and cargo; do so in a stable and safe manner
  • Secure gear and equipment not in use
  • Keep stairs, doorways, and walkways free of obstacles such as equipment
  • Repair leaks immediately
  • Use non-skid protective deck compound
  • Be sure to have de-icing procedures in place
  • Paint tripping hazards in a contrasting color to alert workers of the potential hazard

Falling Overboard 

The OSHA safety manual  discusses the importance of ensuring that vessels and workboats are appropriately stocked with personal flotation devices, that regular maintenance and inspections are being performed, that job hazard analysis are done to prevent overboard incidents, that safety precautions are taken to prevent injuries, among other recommendations. 

According to OSHA, to reduce the risks of maritime workers falling overboard and drowning, vessel owners and operators should conduct a periodichazard analysis to identify conditions that could contribute to a worker falling overboard. An employer could also hire an outside professional safety engineer to help the vessel owner and operator (or employer) to identify and evaluate hazards that exist aboard a vessel and create a safety protocol to help reduce accidents and injuries. 

Man Overboard Rescue Procedures

As part of a vessel’s safety protocol, a vessel owner and operator should create a clear man overboard rescue protocol so that vessel workers are prepared and trained to handle a man overboard situation. These procedures often incorporate the following measures:

  • Use of lifeboats
  • Life rings with rope at least 90 feet length
  • Ladders that extend three feet above and below the water surface
  • Use of immersion suits (where water is cold and could cause hypothermia)

Vessel owners and operators are encouraged to require their crewmembers to practice man overboard procedures regularly so they are prepared to handle these highly stressful rescue procedures when a situation arises. 

Machinery and Equipment Hazards for Barge Workers 

Each year maritime workers are injured from use of machinery and equipment. A variety of different injuries may occur to workers from equipment and machinery use including, but not limited to:

  • Injuries to hands, feet or other limbs that result from using this type of equipment when body parts become caught in moving machinery
  • Injuries may be sustained to the head from falling objects and moving equipment
  • Injuries may be sustained from getting pinned under a load of cargo
  • Injuries may be sustained from falling off equipment
  • Injuries may be sustained from a shock from defective equipment  

OSHA recommends the following precautions be taken to reduce injuries sustained by maritime workers operating equipment and machinery such as safety recommendations to consider when using hoists, cranes, and derricks as well as winches:

  • Regularly inspect equipment
  • Properly maintenance equipment
  • Properly train workers to use equipment
  • Install appropriate rails and safety equipment to avoid equipment being driven off of a vessel
  • Ensure easy access of emergency shut-offs by workers

Hazards Associated with Confined/Enclosed Spaces 

Confined or enclosed spaces on barges can have atmospheres that are toxic and unsafe to workers. Examples of hazards that may be present in enclosed spaces include oxygen deficiencies, toxic chemicals in the atmospheres, and explosive or flammable chemicals in the air. Because of these potential dangers, whenever maritime workers enter a confined or enclosed space, they should be very careful and cautious. 

Fire Hazards 

OSHA’s publication discusses information about fire hazards and safety precautions and steps that can be taken to prevent fires onboard a barge such as:

  • Storing engine fuel and gas tanks safely and away from sources of ignition
  • Posting appropriate danger signs to warn workers of hazards that are present
  • Ensuring work that is capable of creating a source of ignition is done in a properly tested space safe for this type of work
  • Ensuring the proper fire extinguishing equipment is near the work area that could create a fire or explosion
  • Shielding fuel sources to protect them from sparks
  • If you smell fuel or gas, stop any work that involves ignition sources until the problem has been identified and adequately fixed
  • Regularly conducting inspections of wiring, switches, and other connections to detect issues such as corrosion 

Health and Safety Training

Some topics that OSHA recommends that employees be trained on include: Employee Emergency Plans, Medical Services and First Aid, Explosive and Other Dangerous Atmospheres, Fire Protection and Prevention, Handling and Storage of Materials, among various other safety topics.  

OSHA has also created a resource called OSHA Safety and Health Regulations for Longshoring that provides other safety recommendations for maritime workers engaged in longshoring.

Tugboat and Tow Safety Guidelines

A tugboat is a specialized vessel that helps maneuver other vessels by towing or pushing them. Three common types of tugboats are the seagoing tugboat (often a larger vessel used for deep-sea or ocean towing), the harbor tugboat (a multipurpose vessel with a higher width to length ratio that are highly maneuverable and are used to aid other vessels in and out of ports), river tugboats (a vessel with a flat front or bow used to maneuver barges often in rivers and waterways). 

A tugboat operator, known as a tug master, is responsible for ensuring the safety of the vessel and crew. Safety measures should be taken by a tug master before departing on a voyage such as doing proper planning and preparation before a tow commences, ensuring that the vessel is compliant with all applicable safety regulations and is current on all certifications, as well as making sure that all vessel equipment and machinery (such as towing gear) has been inspected and is in good working condition.

Additionally, it is very important for tug masters to make sure that crew members are properly trained and certified to operate the tugboat. Training topics should include subjects such as how to properly complete a towing maneuver, how to properly use towing equipment as well as knowing the equipment’s limitations, dangers associated with towing, and risks associated with working in dangerous weather conditions (which may include rough waters), among others. 

Tug masters should also do adequate emergency planning prior to departing on a tug operation. Emergency planning should take into consideration a variety of different emergency events that could happen unexpectedly. Emergency planning should always make the safety of personnel a top priority when creating contingency plans. Some examples of situations that could arise during a tug operation include:

  • Mechanical breakdowns
  • Malfunctioning equipment
  • Grounding of the tug or tow
  • Failure or parting of the tow wire
  • Collision with another vessel
  • Loss of power or electrical issues
  • Fires aboard the vessel
  • Dangerous weather conditions or rough waters

Laws That Protect Maritime Workers

Maritime law (also known as admiralty law) is a specialized area of law that protects maritime workers who are injured at work. The protections and compensation available to these workers that is provided by maritime laws will depend on various factors, such as the type of worker injured, where the injury occurred, and the specific details of the accident and injuries sustained. 

Some of the more common maritime laws that protect workers in the maritime industry include the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA),Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), and Jones Act, among other laws (some at the state or local level). Below is a brief summary of each law.

Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act

The LHWCA applies to maritime workers injured near navigable waters, such as dock workers, workers repairing ships, harbor workers, forklift operators, longshoremen, and cargo workers. This law is a federal workers’ compensation program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor. The LHWCA program is a no-fault program so that workers are entitled to receive compensation and benefits regardless of who may have been at fault for the accident or injury.

The LHWCA provides medical care and income benefits to injured workers who are covered by this law, as well as death benefits to eligible survivors of a deceased maritime employee. Temporary disability benefits may also be available. Covered workers are also entitled to receive compensation for reasonable and necessary medical treatment. 

Death on the High Seas Act

DOSHA is a federal maritime law that applies to maritime workers who are injured in an accident occurring at least three miles from U.S. shores or territories. DOSHA provides death benefits to a surviving spouse, child, dependent, or representative when a wrongful act or neglect causes a worker’s death.

Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act

OCSLA is a federal law that extends the rights afforded by the LHWCA to those employees working aboard vessels on the outer continental shelf area of the United States. This law also applies to workers on an offshore platform, oil rig, and other fixed structures. OCSLA defines “outer continental shelf” as “all submerged lands lying seaward and outside of the area of lands beneath navigable waters . . . and of which the subsoil and seabed appertain to the United States and are subject to its jurisdiction and control.” 

Jones Act

The Jones Act (also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920) is a federal law that applies to seamen whose injuries result from the negligence of their employer. Prior to the Jones Act, seamen injured at sea had little resource because they were not able to hold their employers accountable for injuries and accidents that occurred at work. The Jones Act gave seamen the ability to file a negligence lawsuit against their employers for work-related injuries (unlike traditional worker’s compensation laws). 

Additionally, under the Jones Act, injured seamen may also collect maintenance and cure benefits from their employers to cover items such as the cost of living on land and medical care and treatment.

These maritime laws help injured maritime workers obtain compensation for the injuries they sustained while working at their maritime job. There may be other laws that also may be available to an injured maritime depending on where the accident took place.

Compensation Available to Maritime Workers Injured on the Job

Maritime workers injured on the job suffer from a variety of different physical and financial damages. Maritime workers may be entitled to compensation for the following types of expenses and damages depending on the specific circumstances of the injured worker’s case:

For more information on maritime injury laws, see the article called Maritime Legislation that Protects You.

Real-World Examples Involving Off Shore Injuries 

Injuries to maritime workers occur in a variety of different situations. One danger is the risk of explosions when vessels transport flammable substances. For example, in October 2020, a Russian oil tanker exploded in the Sea of Azovback. Thirteen crew members worked aboard the vessel and three went missing after the explosion. The explosion may have occurred by flammable vapors that were left behind from the vessel’s previous cargo it transported. After the explosion, the tanker had to be towed back to shore as it was not able to operate properly. 

In addition, the commercial fishing industry also presents many dangers to maritime workers. Commercial fishing often entails the harvesting of fresh fish and other seafood from their natural habitats. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH),  commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. In fact, according to NIOSH, from 2000-2017, commercial fisherman experienced a fatality rate of 114 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers, compared to that of 4 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers among all U.S. Workers. 

An example of a tragic fishing accident occurred in June 2020 when a fishing boat struck the south jetty in the Siuslaw River Bar near Florence, Oregon, and started taking on water. The U.S. Coast Guard responded to the vessel’s distress to help rescue workers who abandoned the ship. Unfortunately, two individuals lost their lives as a result of this commercial fishing boat accident. 

Some maritime workers are even injured in untraditional manners while working aboard a vessel because of the sudden movements that the vessel makes unexpectedly sometimes. For example, several years ago a crew member was injured by a bread trolley in the galley of a cruise ship. The ship’s sudden movement caused the trolley to roll, fall over, and strike a worker in the back causing the worker to suffer severe injuries. The worker was awarded several million dollars for spinal injuries. 

To prevent injuries and fatalities to maritime workers, water and vessel safety precautions taken by all parties involved in the operation of a vessel (i.e. owner, operator, and crewmembers, among others) are of the utmost importance.

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