For over 120 years, ships have used electricity to power various systems crucial to their operation. Electrical power provides vessels with interior lighting and the ability to communicate via radio and other wireless devices. Electricity is also used to operate vital systems, such automatic watertight doors, ship’s controls, radars, and more. However, the watery environment in which vessels operate makes maritime workers more likely to suffer serious industrial injuries caused by electrocution or burns. As a result, ships’ electricians are in a high-risk group of maritime employees that are more vulnerable to injury or death from accidents involving electrical systems.
Maritime Electrical Systems, Accidents and Injuries
Modern ships depend on electrical power in order to operate properly. Most ships carry three generators: one to provide main power, one to handle extra load or demand, and a spare generator for emergencies. Large ships, especially cruise ships, are essentially floating cities that require large amounts of electricity for lighting, controlling the engines, navigational systems, communications gear, and more. On large vessels, most of these operations are handled by a main switchboard that is usually placed in the engine room or the main machinery room below decks. There is also an emergency switchboard that can be used as a backup in case the ship suffers any mishap.
A ship’s electrical engineer’s main responsibility is to make sure that the complex systems aboard a vessel are operating safely and efficiently. Workers in this specialization are assigned to repair or maintain electrical equipment and related components, including the generators, switchboards, stabilizers, electrical equipment on rescue and lifeboats, anchor and mooring winches, public address and clock systems, carbon dioxide fire fighting systems, and more.
Maintaining electrical systems is a job full of risks. It often involves working with electrical wiring which needs to be properly isolated or grounded. Unfortunately, many maritime workers have been injured or killed while working near a live electrical wire or as a result of a deadly combination of water and electricity when an engine room is flooded.
Additionally, because ships contain hundreds of miles of electrical wiring, everyone aboard is at risk of being injured by electrical shocks. Any exposed wire that is carrying an electrical current can injure or shock a seaman, longshore worker, or a passenger, especially if the wire is in or near water.
If an electrical accident occurs aboard a ship, the consequences vary. A person who comes in contact with a live wire or becomes part of an electric circuit may just feel the slight tingle of a mild shock if the current has only a few volts. If the current is stronger, the effects are worse.
According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), a 1-milliampere (mA) current causes only a slight tingling sensation. Currents of 5 mA cause a slight, mildly scary shock which may trigger involuntary reactions that lead to injuries. Stronger currents are more painful; a 6-16 mA jolt can hurt and lead to loss of muscular control. This range is often referred to as the freezing or “let go” range and can cause injuries, especially if a person is thrown away from the electrical current by involuntary movement of the extensor muscles.
At higher voltages, an individual can’t let go of the electrified object or wire. This threshold is reached with currents that range between 17 and 99 mA. Electrical currents of this magnitude cause severe muscular contractions, respiratory arrest, and extreme pain. In severe cases, death is likely. At the 100-2000 mA range, heart function is seriously affected by ventricular fibrillation, and damage to nerves and muscle occurs, making death likely. Currents of 2000 mA or more cause severe burns, damage to internal organs, and cardiac arrest.
Although electrical engineers are the most exposed maritime workers to hazards involving electricity, anyone is at risk of being injured by exposed wiring, poor safety practices at the workplace, or malfunctioning equipment.
In June of 2008, a stevedore foreman in Hong Kong was seriously injured by an electric shock aboard the Saudi container ship Najran. The foreman was boarding the ship to aid another stevedore who had fallen nearly 60 feet down into the ship’s hold when he stepped into an electrified walkway. An exposed wire nearby had electrified the metal in the walkway and shocked the foreman. The stevedore in the ship’s No.6 cargo hold died, while the foreman required medical treatment at a local hospital.
The official accident report states that lack of proper fencing, failure to provide adequate lighting in the working spaces, and the presence of an exposed live wire were contributing factors to the two accidents aboard the Najram. These unsafe conditions violated various protocols established to create safe maritime working conditions, including the International Labor Convention.
If you are a maritime worker and were injured as a result of another party’s negligence, you may be eligible to receive legal compensation.