If you work aboard a vessel that plies ocean waters, you are at risk for developing hypothermia, a dangerous condition in which body temperature drops below 95 degrees. Maritime workers are at a greater risk than workers in most other types of industries of developing hypothermia. Cold working conditions along with the risk of falling overboard into cold waters means that seamen are often in danger of becoming hypothermic on the job.
What is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a lowered body temperature. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees and anything less than 95 degrees is considered hypothermia. Exposure to cold air and cold weather and being immersed in cold water are the main causes of hypothermia. Depending on the air or water temperature, the time it takes to reach a state of hypothermia varies.
Mild hypothermia, which includes having a body temperature around 95 degrees, is characterized by shivering, fast breathing, fatigue, difficulty speaking, hunger, dizziness, an increased heart rate and confusion. Moderate to severe hypothermia, with a body temperature of 94 degrees or lower, can cause shivering to stop, which may be confusing. Symptoms of moderate to severe hypothermia include slurred speech, confusion, drowsiness, shallow breathing, a weak pulse, and loss of consciousness.
Hypothermia can be very serious and if not treated can be fatal or may cause other complications. These may include frostbite, the freezing of tissues in the body. If frostbite goes untreated it can lead to the death and decay of tissues, or gangrene. Gangrenous tissues typically need to be amputated.
The main goal of treating hypothermia is to bring the body temperature up to normal. If you suspect you are suffering from hypothermia on the job, you need to seek treatment immediately. First aid care for hypothermia includes getting to a warm place and using coverings and heat sources to warm the body. If you are suffering from hypothermia from a fall overboard you will need to remove your wet clothing in order to get warmer. Warm compresses, blankets, and warm beverages can all help to elevate the body temperature.
If you have access to medical professionals and the proper equipment for treatment, there are medical procedures that can be used to treat hypothermia. These include blood rewarming, or withdrawing and warming blood and then recirculating it through the body. Oxygen can also be used to rewarm the airways and warm intravenous fluids may be injected to warm the body.
Preventing Hypothermia in Maritime Conditions
Seamen are more at risk for hypothermia than workers in other industries, but this condition can be prevented with proper precautions. The first is good safety training. Your employer should provide workers with training in both preventing hypothermia and in giving first aid for this condition. You should also be provided with the correct protective gear for the conditions in which you work and with plenty of break time to warm up periodically during a shift. If falling overboard is a risk, you should be provided with a whistle so you can be located and rescued quickly.
Negligence and Hypothermia
Maritime work is inherently dangerous and hypothermia is easier to get than you may think. In spite of the risk, your employer has the responsibility to take all reasonable measures to prevent hypothermia in employees. Any failure to provide safety training, education about hypothermia, first aid training, safety and protective gear, or rescue training for falls overboard could be considered negligence if you develop hypothermia on the job.
Hypothermia and Your Rights
Hypothermia may be mild and if treated immediately may cause no lasting damage. However, hypothermia can be fatal if severe and untreated. It can cause lasting damage in the form of frostbite and amputations. If you have to miss any work because of hypothermia, pay for medical treatment, or suffer lasting damage, you are entitled to compensation. Various maritime laws are in place to ensure this.
Maintenance and cure entitles you to medical treatment as well as living expenses for the time period when you cannot work due to your illness or injury. If you qualify as a seaman and your employer’s negligence caused you to develop hypothermia, the Jones Act can help you get compensation for lost wages, medical expenses, future lost ability to earn wages, and for pain and suffering. There are also federal workers’ compensation programs for non-seamen working in the maritime industry.
If you suffered from hypothermia on the job, know your rights and make sure you get the compensation you are owed for your injuries, lost wages, and suffering. A lawyer experienced in helping maritime workers make claims under federal law can guide you through the process, help you decide which law applies to you, and give you the best chances of recovering damages.