Written by Saam Banai.

Every industry has workplace hazards, although some industries are more hazardous than others. Maritime occupations such as crab fishing rank as some of the most dangerous in existence. This is due to the unique variety of threats faced at sea and limited medical facilities. To exacerbate matters, receiving compensation for an injury at sea can be difficult.

Common Threats at Sea

Maritime workers face a variety of threats at sea, the least of which are the mundane threats faced by workers in any industry. Slip and fall accidents, injuries from overexertion, and even intentional acts caused by coworkers are all hazards while at sea. Due to the physically intensive nature of work at sea and the presence of excessive moisture, these ordinary threats become magnified for sailors.

Work at sea also entails threats unique to the ocean. The ship itself is one potential threat. Moving nets can snag workers, causing falls, muscle strains, broken bones, or even ejection over the side of the ship. Other moving equipment can cause blunt force trauma of any severity, including death. Unlike most working environments, ships are also at risk of sinking, thereby exposing workers to frigid waters and potentially harsh waves.

Exposure to severe weather is another hazard at sea. Severe winds can send equipment flying into workers or even send the workers overboard. Large waves can destabilize the employee’s footing, causing falls. In freezing temperatures, accumulated ice that becomes dislodged from the ship can also become a flying weapon.

Employer Duties and Employee Recourse for Injuries at Sea

The nature of an employer’s duty to its employees varies depending upon the nature of the vessel. The United States Coast Guard regulates fishing vessels while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, otherwise known as OSHA, regulates the remainder of the industry and shipyards.  Employers regulated by OSHA are expected to provide employees with certain equipment, such as helmets and fall restraints, otherwise, our maritime injury lawyer tells us, they might be liable for negligence. Employers not regulated by OSHA will have less restrictive requirements.

The United States has a sophisticated workers’ compensation and tort system that will remedy most complaints. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 extended this system to sailors, permitting them to bring actions for negligence and other traditional torts against the owner of the ship, the captain, or other individuals who committed the tortious acts. The action may be filed in state or federal court like any other tort action.

Actions for negligence require a showing that the actor breached a duty of care. The standard duty of care is to act reasonably. If the injured party is injured as a result of another party failing to act reasonably, then the injured party may recover for damages like any other plaintiff. Failing to comply with regulations may also constitute a breach of the duty. The defense will also contest the other elements of negligence, such as causation and injury.

In practice, recovering for injuries suffered at work while at sea can be more complicated. Vessels are routinely registered out of different countries and assigned for different purposes. There are also certain limitations as to what constitutes a sailor under the Merchant Marine Act. Anyone injured at sea should contact an attorney specializing in admiralty law. An attorney can give legal advice to injured plaintiffs and help them understand their options for recovery, if any. 

Saam Banai is a freelance writer, editor, and certified sailor.  He contributes this article for Doyle Raizner LLP, trial lawyers experienced in maritime law. Having a maritime injury lawyer on your side in the event of a work accident at sea might mean the difference between receiving compensation or not receiving compensation.

Thank you, Saam, for another informative article. I didn’t know that fishing vessels were regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard rather than OSHA.  It would seem that these industries would provide the proper safety supplies for their workers, because it is such a dangerous occupation.