The technical definition of hypothermia is a “medical emergency”. (MayoClinic, 2015) It occurs when the human body begins to lose heat faster than it can produce heat to offset the loss. Submerge yourself in water that is around 80 degrees Fahrenheit and you can experience hypothermia after a time. Imagine then what it is like for maritime workers out on the open waters or alongside the docks when conditions are freezing?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (referred to as OSHA) often cites hypothermia as one of the most common risks to maritime workers of all kinds. They do not even have to be in the water for it to occur because it will happen when someone is just exposed to freezing conditions for too long without proper gear or a chance to take a break and warm up.
Though it makes sense that one of the most certain ways to experience hypothermia is to fall overboard into freezing cold waters, you can also get it just be standing outdoors for several hours without a break or respite, and you can get it from wearing inadequate protection during even short periods in cold conditions.
The onset of hypothermia is also dangerous as well because it means that the body is struggling simply to function. You will start to shiver (which is the body’s way of trying to create heat), but as this fails and the body starts to decrease into lower temperatures you may feel lightheaded and confused and lose the ability to move muscles in a coordinated manner. Once the body has gone into moderate hypothermia, it can quickly decline into severe conditions and you may become unconscious (further risking injury or death), suffer a heart attack and more.
Now, it is easy to say that someone who feels they are freezing to death would automatically seek shelter, but there are many instances when a vessel or working environment is without adequate facilities. Either the vessel is not actually seaworthy and is lacking in the most fundamental gear or the facilities onshore are not up to safety standards and do not provide employees with adequate shelter while doing their job.
Maritime laws are in place to prevent harm or injury and require employers to provide staff with appropriate training as well as appropriate protections (gear, heated shelters, and so on). Additionally, any vessels out on the waters are supposed to have specific safety standards in order to reduce or eliminate threats of hypothermia to employees. Safety cables to prevent people from going overboard, navigational methods to prevent dangerous conditions to those on deck, and adequate shelter and time off-duty to eliminate any threat to health and wellbeing are but a few of the things an employer must take into consideration as the safety of the entire crew is their responsibility.
It can be impossible for a maritime employer to prevent certain things from happening, such as icy conditions, but they are supposed to make sure that conditions for their crews and employees are as safe as possible. Asking someone to be put into conditions that may lead to hypothermia is negligent, and any injuries sustained from it create a liability for that employer.
It can be difficult to know the maritime laws and how they may apply to your experience of hypothermia while on the job. Fortunately, you don’t have to become a legal expert to receive your compensation and medical care. When your employer was negligent, an experienced maritime lawyer will be able to help you prove your case and claim what is rightfully due to you for your injury.