Maritime Drowning

With today’s improved safety and technology, it would seem that drowning in the maritime industry would happen a lot less than it did only a decade ago. Yet, drowning still remains a high risk for seamen. Unfortunately, many drownings can be easily prevented with the correct safety precautions that employers and vessel owners are liable to provide. However, each year, numerous maritime workers drown simply because of sheer negligence on behalf of other parties.

Most Common Reasons for Maritime Industry Drowning

Although government regulations and industry safety standards emphasize proper precautions for maritime workers, many seamen still die or suffer serious disabilities as a result of accidental drownings. In catastrophic disasters such as a total vessel loss, unforeseen fatal or disabling drowning accidents may be unavoidable. However, many drowning accidents don’t occur when alert seamen are suddenly swept overboard by rogue waves or nasty storms. Instead, they affect maritime workers who are improperly trained or because employers don’t take appropriate workplace measures to prevent drownings.

Furthermore, not all drownings happen while a vessel is at sea. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), seamen can have fatal drowning accidents when vessels are tied to a dock or while performing a routine task in transit from one port to another.

Per various OSHA reports, a large number of drownings occur because employers don’t provide maritime workers with life vests or other flotation devices. In one incident, OSHA states that a longshore worker drowned after unmooring a 500-ft long vessel.

Per the accident report, the longshoreman had finished unloading the vessel and released the stern mooring lines from the mooring cleats. Neither he nor a co-worker wore life vests. When the vessel was released from its docking station, it began to move and the longshore worker had to do his tasks close to the edge of the dock. While he was releasing line mooring the stern of the ship, the longshore worker lost his footing and fell into the water. The co-worker attempted to rescue the victim by throwing a life ring with a rope attached, but the man in the water did not try to grab it and went underwater. Fire rescue divers were called and were on the scene within five minutes, but by the time they found the victim, he had drowned.

OSHA also reports that many employers place improperly trained seamen or longshore workers in assignments that lead to fatal drownings.

In February 2014, OSHA stated that it cited Florida’s Lucas Marine Acquisition Company for 22 safety violations after the drowning death of an employee. Per the agency’s February 5 press release, the company ‘“intentionally disregarded safety standards and sent construction workers underwater without proper training and without proper equipment.” The OSHA Ft. Lauderdale area director also said, “A worker should not have to sacrifice their life to earn a paycheck.”

According to OSHA, the unnamed employee drowned on August 6, 2013 while doing a surface-supplied air dive as he performed underwater construction work in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Lucas Marine was a contractor on a storm protection project at the Ft. Pierce Marina. OSHA’s records indicate that this was the second Lucas Marine employee to drown while working in less than five months.

The most common causes of job-related drowning accidents among maritime workers include:

  • Lack of life vests or other life preserving equipment on vessels
  • Inadequate training of maritime workers
  • Damaged or worn-out life preservers
  • Allowing maritime workers to work too many hours, resulting in fatigue and exhaustion
  • Employer’s failure to set up buddy system in which workers work in pairs to prevent job-related accidents
  • Slip, trip, and fall accidents
  • Employer’s failure to set up a regularly-scheduled inspection program to ensure that workers wear mandatory life preserving equipment
  • Damaged or otherwise faulty life boats, rafts, or other waterborne evacuation craft
  • Failure to provide or secure safe access in and out of a vessel
  • Damaged Jacob’s ladders
  • Failure to provide personal fall prevention measures
  • Vessel sinkings

Consequences of Negligence

Failure to properly equip a vessel with the proper amount of life-saving equipment or to maintain strict safety standards is negligent behavior according to maritime law. Although seamen and longshore workers accept certain job-related risks, an employer’s primary obligation is to provide a safe and secure work environment. This means they must give safety training to all employees and making sure that no tasks are assigned to inadequately trained personnel. In addition, every vessel must contain sufficient life vests, life rafts, life rings and other safety devices for each person aboard in order to be considered seaworthy.

Seamen who are injured as a result of negligence by an employer are protected by the Jones Act. This law gives seamen or their surviving dependents the right to sue an employer for failing to provide a safe workplace. Maritime employees must teach all workers to follow strict safety protocols, keep all safety equipment up-to-date and in good working order, and assign crewmen to perform only the jobs they are trained to do.

Other maritime workers who are not covered by the Jones Act, such as longshore workers, dockers, shipfitters, and stevedores, who are injured in a drowning accident caused by a third party’s negligence are eligible for compensation via the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Act (LHWCA). The LHWCA Exclusion of Liability, in section 905, allows injured workers or, in cases of fatal drownings, their surviving dependents to file 905(b) claims against negligent employers.

If you or a loved one have been seriously injured in a maritime drowning, it is recommended that you contact an experienced maritime attorney. Maritime law cases involving Jones Act or LHWCA claims are complex and have to be resolved within a certain period of time. In addition, employers and their insurers will try to minimize their financial and legal obligations to injured workers. An experienced maritime lawyer understands the complexities of the law and is prepared to fight for an injured worker’s rights for compensation.