Drowning is a major risk for all maritime workers. This includes seamen working aboard vessels out at sea, but also longshoremen, harbor workers, and workers on offshore oil platforms. There are many inherent risks in the maritime industry, but falling overboard remains one of the biggest risks, and is one that is too often fatal. With good safety training, proper safety equipment, and other precautions, drowning should be a risk that is minimized. If you have lost a loved one in the maritime industry to drowning, there may have been negligence involved and you may be able to recover damages under federal maritime laws.
Causes of Drowning in the Maritime Industry
All types of maritime workers are at risk of drowning simply by working on or near waterways. Seamen on vessels out at sea, harbor workers and longshoremen, fishermen, divers, and oil rig workers on the outer continental shelf are all at risk of falling into water and drowning. Sometimes a drowning in the maritime industry is purely accidental. All safety precautions may have been taken and yet a worker still drowns. In most situations, though, not enough precautions were taken. In these instances, the employer could be considered negligent in the accident.
While it may seem that falling overboard from a vessel out to sea would be the typical maritime drowning incident, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) records many instances of longshoremen and harbor workers drowning while ships are in port:
- A longshore worker was releasing the mooring lines for a ship at the dock’s edge and slipped and fell into the water. The worker was not wearing a life vest and drowned in the water. The concrete where the worker fell in was crumbling and may have caused the fall.
- An employee on a docked grain barge was unhooking spreader cables from the barge cover, lost his balance and fell in the water. He was not wearing a life vest and there was no life ring nearby.
- A longshoreman loading fish onto a tramper vessel fell from a ladder leading from the vessel to a tugboat and drowned. The ladder did not have the required wooden steps to make it stable and safe to climb.
- A worker fell from a crane barge moored alongside a tugboat and drowned. He was not wearing a life vest and wore inappropriate shoes, which would not have provided enough tread.
- An employee working aboard moored barges and tugboats fell overboard at night and drowned. He was working alone and was not wearing a life vest. Many of those available onsite were defective.
According to drowning incidents compiled by OSHA, of which the above are only a few, the most common causes of drownings in the maritime industry are lack of life vests or defective life vests, lack of or defective rescue life rings, slips and falls overboard, broken ladders, a vessel hitting another object, overworked and fatigued employees, and too few routine inspections of equipment, vessels, and the surrounding area.
Negligence in Maritime Industry Drownings
Negligence is common in maritime drownings. All of the most common causes of drownings can, in most cases, be prevented. Employers are often found to be negligent when an employee drowns on the job. Sometimes there are multiple ways in which the tragic accident could have been avoided. In one case the Lucas Marine Acquisition Company of Florida received 22 safety violation citations from OSHA after a worker died in a drowning.
This instance did not involve a fall overboard or a dock fall into the water. The worker was diving to do underwater construction and the OSHA report concluded that the employer showed intentional disregard for the safety standards. The workers were found to be improperly trained and improperly equipped for the job. It was the second negligent drowning the company experienced in five months.
With so many ways in which a company could be found negligent in a drowning, it’s no wonder that there are few truly accidental drowning maritime deaths. Employers in any maritime industry are responsible for providing workers with the training needed to do a job safely as well as training for safety procedures and rescues. They also must provide workers with safety equipment, like functioning life vests and rescue equipment. They are responsible for maintaining surfaces to minimize the risk of slip and fall accidents. They must allow workers breaks and reasonable shifts to avoid the exhaustion that can lead to accidents and drowning deaths.
Rights of Dependents in Maritime Drownings
When an employer fails to take all the necessary precautions to prevent drownings, whether at sea or in harbors, it is considered negligent behavior in the eyes of federal maritime law. Seamen who are injured or killed on the job with negligence playing even just a small part in the incident are protected by the Jones Act. If the worker drowns, the dependents of that person are entitled to receive benefits to cover lost wages that supported them, funeral costs, and possibly also compensation for pain and suffering.
For those workers not identified as seamen, the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act or the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act comes into play. These are federal workers’ compensation plans that provide for the dependents of workers in fatal accidents, regardless of negligent. Any drowning accident on the job is covered under these laws and allows for compensation for dependents of the victim.
If you work in the maritime industry, it is important to understand your rights and the rights of your dependent family member in the unfortunate event that you are injured or killed on the job. If you have a loved one in the industry who died in a drowning accident, you have access to compensation under federal maritime law. With the guidance of an experienced maritime law attorney, you can determine just how much compensation you are entitled to and how to get access to it. An attorney is especially helpful if your employer or your deceased loved one’s employer is denying compensation.