By Arnold & Itkin –
No one would dispute the fact that maritime work is dangerous. Conditions on any offshore platform, barge, dredge and other vessels can be dangerous, even in calm waters. Workers at offshore oil rigs have a death rate seven times the average for the US workforce. Workers in marine terminals and port operations are also at risk, with a death rate five times the national average.
What specific dangers do maritime and offshore workers face? What are the most dangerous maritime professions? This article will answer these questions and provide an overview of the rights of maritime workers.
Offshore oil rig workers
The first category of maritime workers should come as no surprise. Backpackers, welders, drillers, tool pushers, rig managers and all other offshore oil rig workers face danger on a daily basis. They work on platforms surrounded by water, with no medical resources nearby. They are responsible for extracting oil and gas from under the seabed under extreme conditions. Their work is physical in nature and they often work long shifts with little rest. When a disaster like a fire or an explosion occurs, they have nowhere to go.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a morbidity and mortality report titled Fatal injuries in offshore oil and gas operations, which showed surprising death rates for workers on offshore platforms. According to the report, workers in the oil and gas extraction industry (offshore and on land) have a death rate of 27.1 per 100,000 workers, about 7 times the national average.
Of all the workers on offshore platforms, roustabouts have one of the most dangerous jobs. These are usually the less experienced or newer crew members, and their initial responsibilities may require minimal training. Their duties will vary widely depending on the day and their skill level, with risk increasing as they gain more experience and begin to perform more complex tasks. Backpackers are often at risk of slipping and falling, being struck by swinging loads or flying objects, or being exposed to hazardous chemicals or equipment.
When workers on offshore platforms are forced to do their jobs in hazardous conditions, their risk of injury increases exponentially. The Deep water horizon catastrophe is the perfect example. The platform caught fire and sank in April 2010, killing 11 crew members and causing an oil spill that took 3 months to stop, after spilling around 4.9 million barrels of oil into the waters from the Gulf Coast. The incident was caused by a surge of natural gas that passed through a concrete core that had been installed to plug the well.
The concrete core was recently installed by Halliburton. The platform was owned and operated by Transocean and leased by BP. The three companies made “a series of identifiable errors … which reveal failures so systematic in risk management that they cast doubt on the safety of the entire industry.” This statement was included in the report to the Chairman of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.
Longshoremen and port workers
About 99 percent of all overseas trade enters and leaves the United States by ship. This cargo comes and goes through more than 3,700 marine terminals and 1,400 intermodal connections across the country. Ports and terminals are busy and dynamic environments with a lot of traffic from industrial equipment, trucks and other vehicles. Workers at these terminals have some of the most dangerous jobs in the marine industry. They may not work the high seas, but they are still at high risk of injury or death due to the nature of their work and the environment in which they work.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), there were approximately 98,000 port operations and marine terminal workers in the United States in 2017. Many of them were longshoremen. From 2011 to 2017, these workers lost their lives in workplace accidents at a rate of 15.9 per 100,000 workers, roughly 5 times the average fatality rate of the U.S. workforce. During the same period, workers at ports and marine terminals were injured about twice as often as the average American worker.
Logging is physically demanding. It is also performed in environments where workers are exposed to high temperatures, heavy equipment and hazardous chemicals. Dockworkers have to perform heavy and repetitive lifting movements and work in awkward positions and in confined spaces. All of this adds up to higher accident, injury and death rates. Skidders are at risk of injury from falling objects, drowning, amputation, crush injuries and head trauma.
Men and women who work on board ships regularly face dangers, regardless of their job titles or functions. This includes people who operate or work on tugs, barges, container ships, cruise ships, commercial fishing vessels and dredgers. Every seafarer has the right to work on a seaworthy vessel. They risk injury when owners and operators do not take the necessary steps to inspect, repair and modernize the vessels they work on.
A tragic example concerns the sinking in 2015 of the El Faro, which claimed the lives of 33 crew members. Why did the ship sail in a hurricane? An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the vessel to be poorly maintained. She was in poor condition to navigate a hurricane (let alone on the high seas), and the company simply made the wrong choice in deciding to continue. These factors ultimately led to the loss of El Faro and all his crew.
More recently, on April 13, 2021, the lifting boat Seacor power sunk after encountering inclement weather off the coast of Louisiana. 19 crew members were on board. Only 6 returned alive. A preliminary report from the NTSB indicates that the crew were attempting to lower the Seacor Power legs to weather the storm, but the vessel heeled to starboard and capsized before the legs reached the seabed. Why did the ship go to sea in the first place? The investigation is ongoing.
The El Faro and Seacor power are just two examples of disasters that injure and claim the lives of seafarers. Unfortunately, sailors are injured every day in incidents that never make the news. According to NIOSH, from 2011 to 2017, the death rate for workers in the water transportation industry was nearly 6 times the rate for all American workers. Sailors have lost their lives by drowning, work accidents, suicide, cardiovascular problems and violence at work. About 11,000 were injured.
As a sailor, the risk of injury comes from hazards such as handling lines, slippery surfaces, steep ladders, narrow passages, and poorly maintained or inadequate equipment. Severe weather conditions increase these dangers. Sailors are also at risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals and fuels. Contagious diseases and psychological problems can also cause serious problems, such as social isolation, language barriers, drug addiction, intimidation or fear of piracy in international waters.
Spotlight on Underwater Welding: The Most Dangerous Job at Sea or Anywhere
Underwater welders work on offshore platforms and pipelines, making repairs below the surface of the water. They have the most dangerous jobs in the United States, according to a study. The latest statistics on the diver death rate, presented by the CDC, indicated that underwater welders 40 times more likely of losing their lives on the job than the average American worker. (You can read more here: The Dangers of Underwater Welding)
Maritime workers deserve better
Sailors are tough. They work hard to do their job and to do it right. Even if they know the risks they face, that does not excuse the preventable accidents and outright disasters that widow their spouses and leave their children without mothers or fathers.
Death rates that are 5, 6, 7 and even 40 times the national average are simply unacceptable. Maritime workers deserve better, and Arnold & Itkin are leading the charge to protect the rights of offshore workers. When companies try to hide behind the 170-year-old limitation of liability law or force seafarers to give up their rights to compensation, the firm’s maritime lawyers step up and hold them to account. The company has successfully represented a third of Deep water horizon the crew, three widows of the El Faro the crew, and so many others in asserting their rights under the Jones Act, Death on the High Seas Act and other relevant maritime laws, forcing parties at fault to pay for what they had made.
These cases are not easy, but they are important. They must be earned to improve conditions for maritime workers across the planet. No matter what.
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