Tugboats, and the workers who operate them, have an important job in the maritime industry. These boats are used to tow or push larger vessels. These are ships that can’t power themselves for one reason or another. For example, a tugboat might two a large ship through a narrow canal or a busy harbor; it might push a disabled ship back to port or tow oil platforms and barges. Tugboats may even break ice, fight fires, or salvage stranded ships. They are small, but sturdy and powerful boats, up to the task of caring for larger ships.
The work of tugboat pilots and crews is important. Without them, many ships would be stranded out at sea or unable to navigate crowded harbors. The work is also dangerous. Workers must maneuver their tugboats through tight spaces, often while attached to much larger vessels. Many workers aboard tugboats have been in accidents that caused injuries and have even been killed on the job. If you are a tugboat worker, know the rights you have in the case of an on-the-job accident.
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Tugboat Types and Duties
There are several different kinds of tugboats, but three main types distinguished by where they operate and what they do. All of these are covered under federal maritime law, so that if you work aboard any of these kinds of tugboats and are injured in a work accident, you may be entitled to compensation.
- River tugboats. These are also known as push boats and they push or tow vessels on rivers, typically those that have broken down and need a lift back to the shore for repairs. These tugboats are specifically designed to work on rivers, and while powerful, are not appropriate for work on the ocean or in harbors.
- Harbor tugboats. These tugboats are bigger and more powerful than river tugboats. They are used to steer larger ships through crowded harbors. Harbors employ these tugboats and crew them as needed.
- Ocean tugboats. Tugboats operating in the open ocean are the largest and most powerful of these boats. There are different styles of ocean tugboats depending on how they connect to the ships they are towing. The winches used aboard these tugboats are large and powerful.
The Dangers of Working Tugboats
All maritime jobs include inherent risks and dangers, but the work that tugboats do put them in a special category. Compared to other boats, tugboats are small, yet require a lot of equipment. This means that space is at a premium and crowded boats lead to accidents. Tugboats have hawsers and winches for connecting to ships, which are under a great deal of pressure. A snapped hawser can cause a lot of damage. These are just a couple of the things that make tugboat work so dangerous. Some of the other leading causes of accidents aboard tugboats include:
- Mechanical failures. Tugboats require a lot of equipment to do their work and when that equipment fails, it can be harmful. Defective equipment, old machinery, and equipment that hasn’t been properly maintained are all things that can cause accidents and resulting injuries.
- Collisions. Tugboats often navigate tight spaces. Pilots need to be highly skilled, well-practiced, and experienced in order to navigate these spaces without having collisions. Even with careful piloting, these accidents can happen.
- Capsizing. Capsizing is a risk on any type of boat, but it is the leading cause of injuries and deaths on tugboats. Their small size, especially in the open ocean can lead to tragic capsizing incidents.
- Falls. Because tugboats are small and crowded, trips, slips, and falls are not uncommon for workers aboard them. Wet surfaces can cause slips, while crowded conditions cause trips. A fall can lead to an injury, or even an overboard accident.
There are many accidents that occur on tugboats from time to time and that make the news. In the best case scenario, workers are only injured, but too often there are fatalities. For instance, a young woman on her way to becoming a tugboat pilot died while working as a deckhand aboard a tugboat in California. While towing a barge, the hawser connecting her to it hit her with enough force to slam her into the railing and kill her. In 2010 a snapped hawser on a tugboat working in the United Kingdom struck and killed a deckhand. This kind of accident is not uncommon on tugboats. Being in the snap-back zone or using a hawser that is too weak for the job can increase the risk.
Capsizing is also common with tugboats. In an incident in Long Island in 2014, four people had to be pulled from the water when the tugboat they were aboard capsized. The four men survived, but barely. They said a big wave turned the boat over. The accident occurred in the same area as another capsized tugboat just two days earlier. That boat also overturned when a large wave struck it.
Most tugboat incidents are accidents, but negligence is usually involved in some way. In some cases it is more obvious than in others. A tugboat pilot collided with a duck boat and killed tourists aboard that boat on the Delaware River in 2010. The pilot was operating the tugboat while on his cell phone with family when the accident occurred. It was a clear case of criminal negligence and the captain went to prison.
Legal Assistance for Tugboat Accidents
If you work aboard a tugboat you have a job that is naturally risky. You know the risks going into the job, but you also expect that your employer has taken the necessary steps to make your working conditions as safe as possible. This means providing adequate training, keeping equipment maintained, and providing safety equipment. If you are injured in a tugboat accident, you have rights, which may include compensation. Loved ones who lose someone to a fatal tugboat incident also have rights. If your employer is denying you compensation, you can contact an experienced maritime lawyer to help you get the money you deserve.