Hypothermia in maritime work is a real risk and a serious health concern. Cold working conditions and the risk of falling overboard into frigid waters mean that seamen are often in danger of becoming hypothermic on the job. Laws are in place to help cold-injured maritime workers get compensation.
What Is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a lowered body temperature. The average body temperature is 98.6 degrees, and anything less than 95 degrees is hypothermia.
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Exposure to cold air and cold weather and being immersed in cold water are the leading causes of hypothermia. Depending on the air or water temperature, the time it takes to reach a state of hypothermia varies.
Mild hypothermia is characterized by:
- Rapid breathing
- Difficulty speaking
- Elevated heart rate
Moderate to severe hypothermia, with a body temperature of 94 degrees or lower, can cause shivering to stop, which may be confusing. Moderate to severe hypothermia symptoms include:
- Slurred speech
- Shallow breathing
- Weak pulse
- Loss of consciousness
Hypothermia can be severe and, if not treated, can be fatal or cause other complications. These may include frostbite and 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 suffer from hypothermia on the job, seek treatment immediately.
First aid care for hypothermia includes elevating the body’s temperature by:
- Getting to a warm place
- Using coverings and heat sources to warm the body
- Removing wet clothing
- Using warm compresses, blankets, and warm beverages
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 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 proper precautions can prevent this condition.
The first is good safety training. Your employer should provide workers with training in preventing hypothermia and giving first aid for this condition.
You should also be provided with the correct protective gear for the needs 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 expected. Despite the risk, your employer is responsible for taking 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 harm, you are entitled to compensation. Various maritime laws are in place to ensure this.
Maintenance and cure entitles you to medical treatment and living expenses for the 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 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 ensure 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.