What Maritime Workers Need to Know about Shipboard Fires

by | May 15, 2023 | Burn Injury, Maritime Accident, Maritime Injury, Maritime Law, Offshore Accident, Oil and Gas Accident, The Jones Act

Maritime workers face many hazards in the course of their work. But there is, perhaps, no greater fear than fire breaking out onboard a ship, oil rig, barge, or other vessel. Shipboard fires are a nightmare for all involved, and can easily result in catastrophic property damage, injuries, deaths, and threats to the environment.

For maritime workers, it is crucial to understand the dangers of shipboard fires, know how to respond to a fire, and know how to get help after suffering a maritime injury. Below, the maritime injury lawyers at Kherkher Garcia, LLP provide a guide on what maritime workers need to know about shipboard fires.

Examples of Ship Fires

Shipboard fires are common, though most are small and easy to extinguish. Sometimes, however, shipboard fires are significant and cause massive damage, injuries, and even loss of life. See below for some examples of ship fires.

The Grande America fire

In March 2019, the Grande America, a roll-on/roll-off cargo ship, caught fire in the Bay of Biscay. The fire was caused by an electrical fault and spread quickly due to the ship’s cargo of flammable materials. The fire eventually caused the ship to sink, resulting in the loss of all 27 crew members.

Carnival Triumph Fire

In 2013, a fire broke out in the engine room of the Carnival cruise ship, Triumph. The ship was around 150 miles off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula on its way back to Galveston, Texas. The ship’s automated fire extinguishing system was able to put out the fire with no injuries reported. However, the damage done during the fire left the more than 4,000 people onboard stranded without adequate electricity, plumbing, or sanitation.

The Costa Concordia fire

In January 2012, the Costa Concordia, a cruise ship, ran aground off the coast of Italy. The ship’s hull was damaged, and seawater began to leak into the engine room. This caused an electrical fire, which quickly spread throughout the ship. The fire and subsequent evacuation resulted in the deaths of 32 people.

The MV Derbyshire fire

In September 1980, the MV Derbyshire, a bulk carrier, sank in the North Sea during a storm. The cause of the sinking is unknown, but it is believed that a fire may have started in the engine room. The fire caused the ship to lose power and stability, and it eventually sank, resulting in the deaths of all 44 crew members.

These are just a few examples of the many shipboard fires that have occurred over the years. Ship fires can be very dangerous and can result in loss of life, property, and cargo. It is important for ship owners and operators to take steps to prevent fires, and for crew members to be trained in fire prevention and firefighting.

Common Causes of Fires Onboard Ships

Fires onboard ships can have various causes, and identifying the most common ones can help in preventing such incidents. Here are some of the most common causes of shipboard fires:

    • Electrical Faults: Electrical malfunctions, short circuits, or faulty wiring are common causes of fires on ships. These issues can lead to overheating, sparks, or electrical arcs that can ignite nearby flammable materials.
    • Machinery Failures: Fires can be caused by mechanical failures in the ship’s machinery, such as engine components, fuel systems, or lubrication systems. Leaking fuel or oil can come into contact with hot surfaces, leading to ignition.
    • Human Error: Accidental actions or negligence by crew members, such as improper handling of flammable materials, improper storage, smoking in prohibited areas, or failure to follow safety procedures, can result in fires onboard ships.
    • Hot Work Activities: Welding, cutting, or other hot work activities can generate sparks or open flames that can ignite nearby combustible materials if proper precautions are not taken.
    • Spontaneous Combustion: Certain cargo or stored materials, such as oily rags, chemicals, or improperly stored goods, can undergo spontaneous combustion under specific conditions, leading to fires.
    • Insulation and Thermal Insulation Failures: Damaged or deteriorated insulation around hot pipes or machinery can result in the heating of surrounding materials, eventually leading to fires.
    • Galley and Kitchen Fires: Fires can occur in the galley or kitchen areas due to cooking equipment, overheated oil, or unattended cooking.
    • Smoking-Related Incidents: Smoking in unauthorized areas or improper disposal of smoking materials can cause fires onboard ships, particularly if flammable substances are nearby.
    • Arson: Although rare, intentional acts of arson can occur onboard ships, posing a significant risk to the vessel, crew, and cargo.

It is important for ships to have robust fire prevention and safety systems in place, including regular inspections, training for crew members, and adherence to international safety regulations such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

Why are Shipboard Fires So Dangerous?

Ship fires are so dangerous for a number of reasons, including:

    1. The Size of the Ship: Modern container ships can be over 1,000 feet long and carry thousands of containers. These ships require massive amounts of fuel, which can ignite during a fire.
    2. The Difficulty of Fighting Fires at Sea: Firefighting equipment on ships is limited, and it can be difficult to get water to the fire. Additionally, the ship may be in remote areas, making it difficult to get help from shore.
    3. The Risk of Explosion: Many ships carry hazardous materials, such as flammable liquids and gases. If these materials catch fire, they can explode, causing even more damage.
    4. The Risk of Pollution: When a ship fire burns, it can release harmful pollutants into the air and water. These pollutants can harm people and the environment. Similarly, if a ship is carrying hazardous materials, a fire can cause those materials to leak or dump into the ocean.

In addition to these dangers, ship fires can also be very costly. The cost of repairing a ship that has been damaged by fire can be millions of dollars. Ship fires can also lead to the loss of cargo, which can also be very costly. Injuries and death due to a shipboard fire can also take a serious toll on those involved and their loved ones.

How Shipboard Fires Can be Prevented

Preventing shipboard fires is crucial for the safety of the vessel, crew, and cargo. Here are some key measures and practices that can help prevent shipboard fires:

Implement Fire Safety Management Systems

Establish a comprehensive fire safety management system onboard the ship. This includes developing and implementing fire safety policies, procedures, and training programs for the crew.

Conduct Regular Fire Drills and Training

Conduct regular fire drills to ensure that the crew is familiar with their roles and responsibilities in the event of a fire. Provide thorough training on fire prevention, firefighting equipment usage, and evacuation procedures.

Maintain Fire Detection and Suppression Systems

Install and maintain effective fire detection and suppression systems, including smoke detectors, fire alarms, automatic sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers, and fixed firefighting installations. Regularly test and inspect these systems to ensure they are in proper working condition.

Proper Storage and Handling of Flammable Materials

Store flammable materials in designated areas that comply with safety regulations. Follow proper handling procedures and ensure that flammable materials are stored away from potential ignition sources.

Electrical Safety

Regularly inspect and maintain electrical systems to prevent electrical faults and short circuits. Ensure that electrical installations are done by qualified personnel and follow industry standards. Promote safe electrical practices, such as avoiding overloading electrical circuits and using explosion-proof equipment in hazardous areas.

Hot Work Safety

Implement strict procedures for hot work activities, such as welding, cutting, and grinding. Ensure that proper permits are obtained, and fire watch personnel are present during and after hot work operations. Remove or protect nearby flammable materials to prevent sparks or flames from igniting them.

Regular Maintenance

Conduct routine maintenance and inspections of machinery, equipment, and electrical systems to identify and rectify potential fire hazards. Address any identified issues promptly to minimize the risk of fire.

Safety Culture

Foster a safety culture onboard the ship by promoting awareness, training, and accountability for fire safety among all crew members. Encourage reporting of potential hazards and near-miss incidents to proactively address fire risks.

By taking these steps, ship owners and operators can help to prevent ship fires and the resulting damage and loss of life.

Rights for Maritime Workers Injured in a Fire

Maritime workers who are injured in a shipboard fire are generally entitled to certain rights and protections. The specific rights and remedies available may vary depending on the employment status of the worker and the terms of their employment contract. However, here are some common rights and avenues of recourse for maritime workers injured in a fire:

    • Right to Medical Treatment: Injured maritime workers have the right to receive necessary medical treatment for their injuries. Employers are generally responsible for providing medical care and covering related expenses.
    • Maintenance and Cure: Under general maritime law, injured maritime workers have the right to “maintenance and cure.” Maintenance refers to a daily living allowance to cover basic living expenses while the worker recovers, and cure refers to medical treatment and rehabilitation services. These benefits are typically provided regardless of who was at fault for the fire.
    • Jones Act Claims: If the injured maritime worker qualifies as a “seaman” under the Jones Act, they may have additional rights. The Jones Act is a U.S. federal law that provides legal protection to seamen injured in the course of their employment. It allows injured seamen to sue their employers for negligence and seek compensation for damages resulting from injuries sustained in a fire.
    • Third-Party Claims: In some cases, a shipboard fire may be caused by the negligence of a third party, such as a manufacturer of defective equipment or a contractor. Injured maritime workers may have the right to pursue a third-party claim against the responsible party for additional compensation.

Maritime workers should always consult with a maritime injury lawyer before attempting to file a claim. A lawyer can provide guidance on specific rights, legal options, and the best course of action to pursue compensation and other remedies.

Learn More about Maritime Rights

If you work in the maritime industry, you know that there are inherent hazards to the business. Employers and ship owners are required, however, to do everything possible to maintain a safe work environment. When they fail to do so and a shipboard fire causes you injuries, you should explore your legal rights.

At Kherkher Garcia, we have helped numerous maritime workers get compensation for injuries related to fires and other onboard incidents or injuries. Maritime law can be complex, but our lawyers have decades of experience getting results for our clients. There is no case too complex for our team.

Learn more about your maritime rights by calling us at 713-333-1030, or by completing our website form. Our consultations are 100% free, so you have nothing to lose!

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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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