Electrical systems are crucial to the running of all ships in the maritime industry. Electricity runs the lighting networks aboard ships, navigation systems, winches and conveyor belts, fishing equipment, radios, wireless devices, and so many other important components of ships and the work they do out at sea. Electricity is important, but also dangerous, especially when workers are not trained well enough or systems are inadequately maintained.
In any setting, when not used or maintained correctly, electrical equipment can cause shocks, it can start fires, and if it fails can cause other important equipment to fail. On a ship, these risks are amplified. With water all around, electrical equipment must be specially protected. When it fails, the people aboard a ship may be left without important navigation tools and the ability to communicate with shore. If you work aboard a ship, whether as the electrician or not, you could be at risk for injury, or even death when electrical systems malfunction.
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Electrical Systems on Ships
Most ships house a generator room, which is the heart of the electrical systems for the ship. Generators provide the electricity needed to run lighting and equipment aboard a ship. International regulations state that ships must have a backup generator in the event that the main piece of equipment fails. This is an important precaution, as electricity is essential to the proper functioning of most ships. To stay compliant, a lot of ships have three generators. If one fails, the ship will still have two, as required.
Most ships also have a main switchboard, from which workers operate various parts of the ship. The switchboard distributes power to lighting boards, smaller control panels, motor controls, emergency switchboards and other important controllers of equipment. The switchboard is often located below the water line, putting at risk of failing during flooding or sinking. To counteract this, an emergency system is typically kept higher on the ship. Other parts of the electrical systems of a ship include motor controls for various equipment and auxiliary services.
Common Electrical Accidents and Injuries
Three of the most common types of incidents that occur with electrical systems aboard ships are capable of causing accidents and injuries that range from mild to serious. They have even been known to lead to fatalities. These three incidents include electrical shocks, electrical fires, and electrical systems failures. Shocks are especially common as individual incidents, while fires and outages may affect the entire ship, how it operates, and put the safety of the whole crew in jeopardy.
Electrical shocks occur when crew members are not properly trained to work with electrical equipment. Inadequate training is very dangerous as doing something incorrectly when working with electrical systems can easily cause a shock. A shock may also occur when electrical equipment is not well-maintained. The consequences of receiving a shock can range from mild discomfort to death. In between these two extremes, a worker may experience pain, a heart attack, burns, and possibly injuries associated with involuntary muscle contractions or being thrown.
Electrical fires are also serious hazards aboard ships and are most likely caused by faulty or improperly maintained electrical equipment. Regardless of how they start, ship fires can be very dangerous. They can lead to smoke inhalation injuries, burns, falls overboard, and a ship damaged badly enough to sink. Total electrical outages aboard ships can also be dangerous. Without lighting workers can trip, fall, and be injured. Without navigation systems, ships may collide with other ships or structures, or run aground.
Protecting against Electrical Shocks
Some of the more common examples of electrical accidents are being shocked. Most of these accidents, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), are caused by equipment that is unsafe or that has not been installed correctly, an unsafe environment, which on a ship may include water being near electrical equipment, and work practices that are unsafe.
OSHA reports that all workers, including those on ships or in other maritime environments, should be provided with a safe environment when it comes to working around electrical equipment. Things like grounding, insulation, guards, protective wear, and good training in procedures and safety, should be in place to protect workers. Employers are responsible for providing these safety measures.
Electrical shocks can be very serious and can cause real physical injury, permanent damage, and even death if severe enough. How bad a shock is depends on the amount of current running through a circuit. A shock with one to five milliamperes of current causes effects that range from tingling to pain, but is not usually serious. Up to 25 to 30 milliamperes can cause a person to lose control of their muscles, while shocks over 30 may prevent a person from being able to let go of whatever they are touching. From 50 milliamperes and up, death is possible.
Even when a shock is not in the range that can lead to death, it can cause other injuries. An electrical burn is not uncommon on the exposed skin of someone who gets a shock. The loss of muscle control and spasms that sometimes accompany a shock can also cause a worker to be injured by striking something, causing equipment to fall, or by falling from a walkway or stairway.
Examples of Accidents
There have been many incidents in the maritime industry of accidents, injuries, and even fatalities caused by electrical system incidents. For example, a Saudi Arabian ship worker died after a fall from a walkway in 2008. The fall was triggered by an electrical shock. The worker had been exposed to a live electric cable, received a shock, and fell off the walkway, which did not have adequate fencing. He died from the resulting injuries.
In 2013, a cruise ship off the coast of the United Kingdom experienced an electrical fire and a total power outage as a result of the fire. Luckily for everyone aboard the ship, it was anchored in calm waters with good weather. The ship was stranded and had the weather or waters been rough, would have been at the mercy of those conditions. No one was injured in the incident.
In 2008, off the coast of Northern Ireland a cargo ship ran aground after experiencing an electrical blackout. No one was injured, but the ship was severely damaged. Subsequent investigations found that lax routines for electrical maintenance aboard the ship contributed to the outage that caused the accident. The investigators also determined that there was inadequate communication between the bridge and the engine room, which led to the starting of the main engines without approval.
Workers’ Rights under Maritime Law
Electrical equipment is essential to the running of all kinds of ships, but it also presents problems. Many of the incidents that cause electrical fires, shocks, and outages, which lead to accidents, injuries, and even deaths in the worst cases, could be prevented with proper training of personnel and regular maintenance of systems. If you work aboard a ship and have been injured in an electrical system incident, you have rights under maritime law to ensure that you get adequate compensation.
Any worker aboard a ship is entitled to compensation for medical bills and lost wages under basic maritime law, no matter who was to blame for the incident. However, if you can prove your employer was negligent in the accident and you qualify under the definition of a seaman, you may be entitled to even more compensation. You may be owed money for lost future earnings or for pain and suffering. You should also know that if you have dependents and you die at work because of an electrical accident, your loved ones are also owed compensation. If you find yourself injured from your job duties and you are being denied compensation, an experienced maritime lawyer can help you get the money you deserve.