It is no secret that working in the maritime industry has unique dangers, especially if you work for a shipbuilder, or in or near a shipyard. With dangers well known, it must be asked “Who has Accountability for Shipbuilder Injuries?” This is a question many shipbuilders and maritime workers are asking in light of an Alabama lawsuit gaining a lot of attention.
Imagine your employer asks you to work with a dangerous tool. On the surface, that may seem like a normal part of your responsibilities. But what if that tool had been modified from its intended, manufactured use and you were injured as a result? Read on to learn more about just such a scenario, as well as what you can do to get help after a maritime injury.
Shipbuilder Lawsuit Background
Between January 2011 and March 2015, The Center for Investigative Reporting found at least 53 reports of injuries related to a modified tool used by employees at Austal USA – a shipyard in Mobile, Alabama. The tool causing these injuries is a Metabo grinder, which is designed to be used with cutting discs in a straight line. Austal officials realized that replacing the factory-intended discs with saw blades containing teeth would speed up the cutting process, and placed the modified version into the hands of their workers.
According to the Metabo Corp. operator’s manual for the grinder, using blades like the one Austal chose can cause “frequent kickback and loss of control”. That is exactly what has happened causing the injuries to so many Austal employees. The reported injuries include cuts, gashes, and tears to the face, neck, and upper extremities. Many of the injuries were to the hand or fingers, and required amputation.
Even with a manufacturer’s warning and numerous reports of injuries specifically related to the tool, Austal officials continue to put their employees in danger. For years, the tool has been referred to as a “widow maker” by Austal officials and employees, including its top Safety Manager.
Based on the information and investigation into Austal and the injuries, an Alabama trial court has allowed a lawsuit to be filed by eight former or current Austal workers. The lawsuit claims that Austal officials intentionally endangered workers by requiring them to use a tool that was modified and knowingly dangerous. The lawsuit names Austal, Metabowerke, GmbH and Metabo, and the distributor Southern Gas and Supply Inc.
Austal has filed an appeal with the Alabama Supreme Court citing immunity under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). The company’s attorneys maintain that their immunity is solid, “even assuming that Austal acted intentionally with regard to each plaintiff’s workplace accident”. It is unclear exactly how the LHWCA will factor into this lawsuit.
Traditionally, the LHWCA offers limited or no coverage to U.S. government employees. This is one aspect of this lawsuit that will undoubtedly be reviewed as it is determined whether the injured workers could be considered government employees. This is often a gray area when there are government contracts and multiple entities involved. Another element of the LHWCA that will be relevant is determining whether the injured workers have state workers’ compensation benefits.
To find out more about your rights as a maritime worker, or to learn more about filing a maritime injury lawsuit, contact Brown Wharton & Brothers today. Maritime law is complex and defending your rights is best done with the guidance of a skilled attorney.
A Bigger Issue
Safety concerns like this one are not uncommon among shipbuilders. What makes these concerns even greater is the fact that the U.S. government relies on these specialized manufacturers to supply vessels for the Navy and Coast Guard. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been working for years to improve safety for shipbuilders, but unfortunately, these companies are not being held accountable.
Since 2008, over $100 billion in contracts were given to seven major shipbuilders by the Navy and Coast Guard despite the fact that these companies were subject to serious safety violations. Austal specifically has been fined more than $61,000 by OSHA, including a penalty of $4,125 related to their exposing employees to “amputations, severe lacerations, and other injuries”. During the same period that these fines and penalties were imposed, the Navy contracted more than $6 billion in work with Austal.
The issue here is that the U.S. government expects those obtaining contracts to conduct business in an ethically and legally acceptable way. Unfortunately, there is no real means of holding these companies accountable. Even fines and penalties for safety violations resulting in injury or death are not halting unsafe or dangerous behavior.
What Maritime Workers Need to Know
As consumers, patients, and employees, we expect those who manufacture, distribute, care, or supervise us to keep our safety in mind. Modifying a tool outside of its intended use certainly seems like questionable behavior. At what point does such action become negligence or worse, malice?
Employees have some rights via workers’ compensation or maritime injury laws, but those do not help alleviate the problem of employers knowingly endangering their workers. Lawsuits like this one can help raise awareness and demand attention be given to the lives of shipbuilders and all maritime workers.
Maritime workers who have questions about their legal rights, workers’ compensation or other laws, or need help after a work-related injury should contact an attorney who specializes in maritime injury cases. At Brown Wharton & Brothers, we have the knowledge and experience you need to defend your rights and demand justice. Fill out our online form to provide your information and our staff will contact you right away to set up your free consultation.