Articles Posted in Admiralty & Maritime law

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Late last month, a drilling rig stationed off the Gulf of Mexico experienced a significant blowout. A cloud of gas surrounding the rig ignited and subsequently burned out of control in the wake of the blowout. After the rig experienced the blowout, all 44 workers stationed on the rig were evacuated in order to prevent further explosion injuries. The blowout and subsequent fire have many maritime safety experts and legislators questioning whether the offshore safety culture has changed significantly enough since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill disaster.

After the natural gas well being drilled offshore blew out, workers scrambled to shut the well down through the utilization of a blowout preventer. However, the workers were forced to evacuate before they could completely shut down the well. What caused the resulting cloud of gas to ignite was undetermined in the immediate wake of the significant safety incident.

This incident is especially disturbing given that blowout preventer malfunctions inspired the oil spill in the Gulf in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Though legislators and safety regulators mandated changes to this equipment and safety practices related to blowout prevention practices on offshore rigs, the latest blowout in the Gulf suggests that these experts did not go far enough in their attempts to protect workers from future dangerous explosions and spills.

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Some kinds of accidents are completely preventable. If vessel owners, supervisors and maritime workers follow safety protocols, wear appropriate safety gear and respond to the unexpected in the ways that they have been trained to, tragedies can be averted. However, other accidents are only somewhat preventable. When it comes to navigating bad weather on a commercial fishing vessel, there is only so much that maritime workers can do to avoid the worst.

There are various trainings, safety protocols and preventative measures that can be taken to mitigate a risk of accidents during poor weather conditions on commercial fishing vessels, just as there are on recreational fishing vessels. These precautionary measures should be taken seriously, as failure to do so can lead to a far higher risk of injury and death.

In the case of freak lightening, there is little that can prevent related injury if the lightning occurs seemingly out of nowhere and strikes without warning. However, taking weather reports seriously and responding to weather-related warnings urgently can help to prevent injury. The only truly safe place one can be during a lightening storm is in a well-constructed stationary building. However, taking shelter in the safest area of a commercial fishing vessel will give workers the best possible shot at avoiding lightening-related injury and death.

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In late May, we discussed some of the ways in which maritime operations can benefit from safety culture changes. The concept of cultural change involves far more than simply instituting revised safety policies devoid of context. Cultural change assumes that not only will policies, prevention measures, training and operations be affected by increased attention toward safety, it presumes that increased focus on safety will influence and inform every aspect of operations.

In an effort to reduce the rate of maritime injuries, occupational illness and maritime accidents currently occurring within the industry, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has embraced the concept of cultural change in regards to maritime safety. It recently published guidance to be used by ship owners in reforming their own safety culture and instituting broad change for the benefit of maritime workers. This guidance is free and widely available for all industry employers.

The Secretary General of the ICS recently explained that the new guidance is “intended to provide some basic advice to companies on the successful implementation of an effective safety culture. This covers the vital need for all concerned, at sea and ashore, to understand the relationship between unsafe acts and serious incidents that may result with loss of life.”

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The bridge is a common maritime term for the room from which a large vessel is generally commanded. Though decisions about its operation are made all over the vessel, the bridge is generally considered to be central command and from this place the consequences of important navigational, logistical and safety choices are weighed.

Too often, accidents resulting in maritime injuries start with decisions that are made by individuals stationed at the bridge. Both the technical equipment they engage with as well as the more complex personal choices they grapple with may affect the well-being of everyone aboard. Accordingly, a new research and development project focused on bridge safety is currently being launched.

The new project is being funded by numerous organizations with assistance from the European Union broadly. It aims to consider both the technical and human aspects of bridge operations that lead to safety crises. By contemplating ways to forge both technical and human safety gaps in bridge operations, the experts conducting this three year project hope to influence safety positively throughout the operations of any given vessel.

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When a ship operator or other maritime employer makes any change to improve the safety of workers, positive progress has been made. However, reducing a given vessel’s rate of maritime injuries is likely only going to occur in any significant way if the entire vessel’s culture is grounded in the execution of safe practices. Much like a hospital can only significantly improve patient safety through cultural changes, maritime operations can only truly improve worker safety by making reform a core value of the venture.

One company recently adopted this kind of site-wide reform and managed to subsequently cut its employees’ serious injury rate by roughly two-thirds. In addition, lesser injuries requiring some time off have been cut in half. Finally, the employer has benefited not only from healthier and more consistent employees, costs tied to insurance claims have been reduced by more than three-quarters annually.

When safety becomes a core value of any given maritime operation, both workers and employers benefit in substantial ways. The key for any successful operational reform is that the value of safety must practically affect every element of a vessel’s functioning. From communications to engagement, training to everyday operational tasks, safety must be a core focus of how any maritime operation does business.