What Maritime Workers Need to Know about Disability and Ability to Work

The maritime industry has many unique dangers and reports of workers being injured is not uncommon.  Whether you work on an oil rig or a shipyard, here is what maritime workers need to know about disability and ability to work after an on-the-job injury.

Workers in the maritime industry often worry about what would happen to their livelihood if they become injured or disabled.  Not only are workers’ compensation laws different for maritime workers, but navigating the waters of what “disability” versus “ability” to work means can be difficult.  Further, in the maritime industry, the work required is often strenuous.  What happens when an illness or injury causes you to be unable to return to that same position?

Disability versus Ability

There is no diagnosis for “disability”, which makes it difficult for someone who has been injured or become ill to understand their rights and what sort of protection they may be eligible for.  Two individuals with the exact same medical diagnosis of diabetes, for example, may be classified as disabled or not based on other factors.  What’s more, who gets to decide what qualifies as a disability warranting benefits?

The federal government considers someone disabled if he or she is unable to work due to a medical condition.  In most cases, however, it is a judgment call made by doctors and verified or refuted in courtrooms.  Some countries like the UK use “fit to work” tests to determine if someone is physically capable of returning to their jobs.  Ultimately, however, it is still a matter of judgment as the injured person is judged to be fit or not.  Falling somewhere in a gray area could leave individuals “fit to work” on paper, but actually physically unable to resume their employment as previously done.

More Americans on Disability than Ever

In recent decades, it seems that doctors and the government are more apt to classify someone as disabled, or maybe there are more conditions now considered disabilities.  Over the last three decades, the number of Americans receiving disability payments has increased significantly.  It is estimated now that each month, 14 million Americans get disability checks.  The breakdown of common causes of disability, and the causes growing, includes the following:

Condition: 1961 2011
·         Back pain and musculoskeletal problems 8.3% 33.8%
·         Mental illness and developmental disabilities 9.6% 19.2%
·         Heart disease and stroke 25.7% 10.6%
·         Cancer 8.3% 9.2%
·         Other 22.4% 7.7%

Another possible reason for the rise is doctors like one in rural Alabama who considers the overall condition of the individual when recommending him or her for disability.  For example, someone with a college degree and chronic back pain can likely find a reasonably accommodating job, whereas someone with a grade school education and chronic back pain likely would be undesirable – and thus, unhireable.

Determining Disability in the United States

Determining who is disabled is managed by the Social Security Administration (SSA).  The SSA uses a series of questions and guidelines when determining who is eligible for disability benefits.  The five questions found in the SSA Disability Planner include:

  1. Are you working? Individuals who are employed and make more than $1,130 per month generally cannot be considered disabled.
  2. Is your condition “severe”? The condition must interfere with work-related activities.
  3. Is your condition found in the list of disabling conditions? The SSA has a list of conditions that automatically equate with disability. Conditions that are not listed as decided on based on the severity and other factors.
  4. Can you do the work you did previously? If your condition is severe but does not interfere with your ability to do the same job you previously did, you may not be eligible for disability benefits.
  5. Can you do any other type of work? The SSA considers your overall health, age, education, and any experience or unique skills when determining whether you are able to secure another job.

Maritime Workers and Disability Benefits

Many workers in the maritime industry find that traditional workers’ compensation or disability benefits do not apply to them.  In such cases, maritime workers should explore their rights under The Jones Act and the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA), two laws that specifically protect the rights of maritime workers who have been injured on-the-job.

Rather than offering traditional disability benefits, these two laws provide coverage for what is known as maintenance and cure (general expenses and medical care expenses), along with other damages depending on your situation.  Some maritime workers find that their employers are eager to help them heal and return to work.  Other times, maritime workers must file a lawsuit in order to get the help and benefits they are entitled to.

In order to be protected under The Jones Act or the LHWCA, you must be classified as a seaman, longshoreman, harbor worker, or a worker in a shipyard, terminal, or dock area.  There are also certain guidelines related to the vessel or working conditions, time spent working onboard, etc.

The only way to really know what disability benefits you qualify for as a maritime worker is to contact a maritime attorney. Fill out our online form to get in touch with one of our skilled Texas maritime injury attorneys.


  • http://apps.npr.org/unfit-for-work/
  • https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/21/andy-badly-injured-fit-for-work-disability-benefits