A recent report from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), an organization in the United Kingdom, is shining light on the dangers of hypothermia in the maritime industry. The new report shows that maritime workers who fall overboard have, on average, 11 minutes or less before they become responsive. This is crucial information for maritime workers and rescuers.

At Kherkher Garcia, our maritime injury attorneys want to provide maritime workers and their families with information that could help save lives. Below, we will discuss the MAIB report, as well as hypothermia risk, complications, and the impact on maritime workers’ lives.

Hypothermia Risk Increases as Time in the Water Increases

The MAIB report analyzed 20 maritime accidents between 2017 and 2021. The analysis showed that the risk of hypothermia increases significantly the longer an individual is in the water. While the report noted that rescuers have, on average, 11 minutes to pull someone from the water before they become unresponsive, the data from the analysis is much more alarming:

  • There were 308 man overboard incidents between 2015 and 2023
  • 40% of those incidents resulted in a fatality
  • Many incidents saw victims become unresponsive in as little as four or five minutes.

It is important for maritime workers and rescuers to understand just how quickly hypothermia can set in, and the risks for further complications and impacts.

Hypothermia in the Maritime Industry

The maritime industry is notorious for its unpredictable and harsh working conditions, with seafarers facing a wide range of risks. One of the most dangerous and potentially life-threatening risks is hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, leading to a drop in core body temperature. There are several ways that hypothermia can occur in the maritime industry, including:

Exposure to Extreme Weather Conditions

Working on the open sea exposes maritime workers to a wide range of weather conditions. From frigid Arctic waters to sweltering tropical climates, seafarers often encounter temperature extremes that can put them at risk for hypothermia. In colder regions, a sudden fall overboard or a prolonged exposure to cold water can quickly lead to hypothermia. Similarly, even in warmer regions, working in wet clothing and constantly battling wind and spray can make the body lose heat rapidly.

Limited Access to Shelter

Unlike most other occupations, maritime workers don’t have the luxury of escaping adverse weather conditions. Many tasks on ships and offshore platforms require continuous exposure to the elements. This prolonged exposure to cold, wet conditions makes seafarers highly vulnerable to hypothermia, even in relatively mild temperatures.

Suboptimal Clothing and Equipment

The maritime industry is characterized by its rigorous safety protocols, but sometimes, the provision of adequate clothing and equipment is lacking. Inadequate protection from cold and wet conditions can increase the risk of hypothermia. Insufficient insulation, ill-fitting gear, and damaged clothing can all contribute to a loss of body heat.

Complications of Hypothermia in the Maritime Industry

Many cases of hypothermia are treatable with proper medical attention. Unfortunately, there are many maritime workers who suffer long-term, even permanent effects after hypothermia. Some of the complications of hypothermia include:

Cognitive Impairment

Hypothermia can cause cognitive impairment, making it difficult for affected individuals to make rational decisions. In the maritime industry, where split-second decisions can mean the difference between life and death, this cognitive impairment poses a significant danger. Hypothermic workers may struggle to assess risks, follow safety procedures, or communicate effectively with their colleagues.

Reduced Physical Coordination

Hypothermia also affects physical coordination and muscle function. The maritime industry requires precise and coordinated movements, from operating heavy machinery to navigating the ship’s deck. When a seafarer is hypothermic, their ability to perform these tasks is compromised, increasing the risk of accidents.

Increased Risk of Drowning

Seafarers who fall overboard while hypothermic face a significantly increased risk of drowning. Cold water causes the body’s blood vessels to constrict, directing blood away from the extremities and vital organs to keep the core warm. As a result, muscle strength and coordination decrease rapidly, making it extremely difficult to swim and stay afloat.

Cardiac Complications

Hypothermia also places significant stress on the cardiovascular system. As body temperature drops, the heart rate and blood pressure decrease, reducing the blood supply to vital organs. This can lead to arrhythmias, which, in a maritime emergency, can be life-threatening. Additionally, sudden re-warming of a hypothermic individual can cause a surge of stress on the heart, potentially leading to cardiac arrest.

Respiratory Distress

Respiratory distress is another complication of hypothermia. Cold air can irritate the airways and lead to bronchoconstriction, making it challenging for the affected individual to breathe. In the maritime industry, where the risk of inhaling sea spray or being exposed to harsh winds is high, this can be particularly problematic.

Prognosis for Hypothermia in the Maritime Industry

The prognosis for hypothermia in the maritime industry largely depends on several factors, including the severity of the condition, the response time to initiate treatment, and the general health of the affected individual. Here are some key aspects to consider:

  • Severity of Hypothermia: Hypothermia is classified into mild, moderate, and severe stages based on core body temperature. The prognosis is better for individuals with mild hypothermia (body temperature between 90-95°F or 32-35°C) compared to those with moderate (86-90°F or 30-32°C) or severe hypothermia (below 86°F or 30°C). Severe hypothermia is a medical emergency, and the prognosis becomes increasingly dire the longer the condition persists.
  • Early Detection and Intervention: The most critical factor in determining the prognosis of hypothermia is the speed with which it is identified and treated. In the maritime industry, having well-trained crew members and adequate safety protocols in place for recognizing and responding to hypothermia is vital. Early re-warming techniques, such as heated blankets, hot beverages, and warm, dry clothing, are key to improving the prognosis.
  • Age and General Health: An individual’s age and overall health can significantly impact their ability to withstand hypothermia and recover from it. Younger, healthier individuals tend to have a better prognosis than older individuals or those with preexisting medical conditions.

When is Hypothermia an Issue of Negligence?

Hypothermia in the maritime industry can sometimes be the result of employer negligence when employers fail to follow or maintain certain safety and operational protocols. In such cases, hypothermia can occur due to preventable factors, and the employer may bear responsibility. Here are situations in which hypothermia may be caused by employer negligence in the maritime industry:

Inadequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Failure to provide appropriate cold-weather gear, such as insulated clothing, waterproof jackets, and thermal gloves, can expose workers to the risk of hypothermia. Employers must ensure that PPE is in good condition, correctly fitted, and suitable for the specific environmental conditions in which their employees are working.

Lack of Training

Negligence can occur when employers do not provide comprehensive training on cold weather and hypothermia risks. Workers should be educated on recognizing the signs and symptoms of hypothermia, as well as proper response and first aid measures.

Inadequate Shelter or Rest Areas

In situations where workers are expected to be on deck for extended periods, employers have a responsibility to provide sheltered rest areas or heated spaces to allow workers to warm up and prevent hypothermia. Failure to provide adequate shelter in harsh conditions can lead to prolonged exposure, increasing the risk of hypothermia.

Insufficient Monitoring

Employers are responsible for monitoring weather conditions and ensuring that workers are not exposed to extreme cold or wet conditions for extended periods. Neglecting to implement weather monitoring systems or failing to heed weather advisories can lead to hypothermia risks.

Lack of Emergency Response Plans

Employers should have emergency response plans in place for incidents such as man-overboard situations, including swift retrieval of workers from cold water and appropriate medical care. Inadequate or poorly executed emergency response plans can increase the risk of severe hypothermia outcomes.

Poor Maintenance of Equipment

Neglecting the maintenance of life-saving equipment, such as immersion suits, life jackets, or safety harnesses, can result in equipment failure when needed most, such as during a man-overboard event. Defective or poorly maintained equipment can leave workers more vulnerable to hypothermia.

Inadequate Crewing Levels

Employers must ensure that there are enough crew members available to handle various tasks safely and efficiently. Understaffing can lead to overexertion and prolonged exposure to cold conditions, increasing the risk of hypothermia.

Unsafe Work Practices

Encouraging or permitting unsafe work practices, such as not requiring workers to wear appropriate PPE in cold or wet conditions, can contribute to hypothermia risk. Employers should enforce safety policies and practices designed to prevent hypothermia.

Failure to Provide Adequate Medical Support

Employers must ensure that trained medical personnel or first aid responders are available on the vessel. A lack of proper medical support can hinder the immediate response to cases of hypothermia and increase the risk of complications.

Inadequate Communication

Effective communication between crew members, supervisors, and the employer is crucial in ensuring safety. Neglecting to establish clear communication protocols can result in delayed response to emergencies, including cases of hypothermia.

It is essential for employers in the maritime industry to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of their workers by following regulations and maintaining a culture of safety. Neglecting these responsibilities may lead to situations in which a maritime injury can be attributed to employer negligence. In such cases, legal and regulatory consequences may follow.

Getting Help after a Maritime Injury

It is essential for maritime workers to be aware of their rights and for employers to maintain a commitment to safety and accountability. At Kherkher Garcia, we help victims of negligence understand their rights and how they can fight back when the negligence of someone else causes them harm.

Maritime laws like The Jones Act protect maritime workers and provide compensation for injuries and losses. But these laws can be challenging for workers, especially in the midst of an already stressful situation. That’s why our maritime injury attorneys are here to help.

If you have suffered hypothermia or another injury due to negligence in the maritime industry, contact us today. With a free consultation, we can help you explore your options for obtaining the compensation that you deserve. Get started by calling us at 713-333-1030, or by contacting us online.

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Jesus Garcia

Jesus Garcia

Founding Partner and Trial Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Injury Trial Lawyer and Founding Firm Partner Jesus Garcia. Jesus has been a practicing injury lawyer for more than 20 years. He has won $150 Million+ in Settlements and Verdicts for his clients. He is a force of nature in the courtroom and the trial lawyer you want on your side if you or a loved one have been seriously injured at work or on the road. Abogado Jesus Garcia is bilingual and passionate about being the voice in the courtroom for the spanish speaking community here in Houston, across the state of Texas, and throughout the Nation.

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