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Jones Act Liability for Failure to Provide Adequate Space to Conduct Work Safely

An employer is negligent for failing to provide its employees with sufficient space to safely conduct their work. For example, in Ribitizki v. Canmar Reading & Bates, 111 F.3d 658 (9th Cir. 1997), a seaman was assigned to work in a pit room on an oil drilling ship. The open area of the pit room was a rectangle four-feet by sixteen-feet. Within this space was a sink, a hatch in the deck, and a guarded opening for a stairway. While unkinking a hose cleaning the pit room, the seaman was injured when he walked backward or slipped into the open hatch. The employer argued that nobody had complained about the safety of the pit room before the incident and that no other employees had been injured in the pit room. Holding that the failure to provide adequate space for the crew to perform their work supported negligence, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court and stated:

“Ribitzki stated in his deposition that the pit room was an unsafe place because it provided insufficient space for him to perform his assigned task. . . Due to the configuration of the pit room, there was only 24 inches of deck space between the open hatch and the pit room bulkhead. It was in this contricted space immediately adjacent to the open hatch where Ribitzki performed his maneuver to unkink the hose. To get the kinks out of the hose, he turned around with his back to the open hatch and the hose above his head. When he did so, he stepped or slipped and fell into the opening. A jury could find from this evidence that the pit room in the area where Ribitzki fell was an usafe place for him to work.”

Id. at 662. Ribitzki teaches that an employer’s duty to provide a reasonably safe place to work includes the duty to provide adequate space for employees to perform their tasks safely. See also Martinez v. Offshore Specialty Fabricators, Inc., 481 F. App’x 942, 946 (5th Cir. 2012) (where the court found employer negligent for a back injury sutained while swinging a sledge hammer in a cramped space that required the seaman to crouch and bend forward in a manner that increased risk of injury to the neck and upper torso); Crador v. Louisiana Department of Highways, 625 F.2d 1227 (5th Cir. 1980) (neglicence supported by findings of fact that seaman had to work in poorly lighted, awkward and confined quarters while making repairs to the transmission of the vessel).

If you sustain an injury on a vessel due to inadequate space to safely conduct your job tasks, it is important that you document the problem and take photographs, if possible, of the inadequate work area.  Measurements of the work space may also be important and you should collect the contact information for any witnesses that were in the area, even if they did not directly witness your injury.