Deckhands are essential to the function of pretty much every commercial vessel on the water. Their duties may change slightly based on the specific vessel or location, but they are the operating hands of fishing vessel, tugs, ferries, barges, ocean-going ships, cruise ships, and tour boats. Though important, a deckhand’s shipboard role can expose him or her to the many perils of the sea.
A deckhand can be asked to participate is all sorts of tasks on a vessel. These may include:
Commercial Fishing Vessels — deckhands help navigate the boat, handle lines, operate fishing equipment, sort fish, and keep the vessel clean.
Cruise Ships — deckhands assist with keeping a safe watch, handling lines, painting, cleaning common areas, and monitoring passenger spaces for safety issues.
Cargo Vessels — deckhands help stand watch from the bridge, act as runners for ship officers, handle heavy deck machinery, observe cargo operations, chip paint, apply paint, and clean throughout the vessel.
Tug and Barge Combinations — deckhands can assist on the tugboat and the barge by watching for vessel traffic, monitoring the towing connection between vessels, operating deck/line-handling equipment, painting, and cleaning.
Tour/Dinner Boats — deckhands assist in steering the vessel, keeping a lookout, helping passengers board, monitoring the engine room, enforcing passenger safety rules, and cleaning common spaces to avoid clutter and slippery surfaces.
Ferries — deckhands play critical roles in directing passenger and vehicle traffic, securing vehicles to the deck, monitoring passenger safety, making safety rounds while underway, and assisting with docking operations.
Much of deckhand work is physically demanding and frequently involves standing, climbing, lifting, carrying loads, and operating commercial equipment—all this while the vessel is moving too. With little notice, deckhands can be called on to help with firefighting, bilging, spill cleaning, or even abandoning ship.
Because of the breadth of their shipboard responsibilities, deckhands are among the most likely crewmembers to be injured on just about any commercial vessel. Oftentimes, their work takes them on deck where they are exposed to wind, waves, rain, freezing temperatures, or extreme heat. While operating equipment or assisting along the rails, deckhands have all too frequently been thrown overboard. During cargo operations, deckhands can be crushed by equipment or caught in heavy machinery. They may even be exposed to corrosive chemicals, toxic fumes, fire, or electrical shock. Winches, cranes, hydraulic equipment, engines, hatch covers, gangways, and safety railings are all things that can malfunction or become defective and cause injury to deckhands.
Safety equipment is sometimes within the hands of capable deckhands to operate and maintain. This could include life rings, life rafts, emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRB), immersion suits, rescue lines, and life jackets. Deckhands can be exposed to risk while maintaining or practicing with many of these pieces of safety equipment. For example, a deckhand could be injured while launching a rescue tender during a man overboard drill. Or, during the same drill, a deckhand could be caused to fall overboard while handling a defective life ring line that was deteriorated by sunlight.
Deckhands are perhaps at the greatest risk during cargo operations. Whether handling nozzles on a fuel barge, shore power connections at the ferry dock, conveyor belts on dry bulk ships, or lashings on a container ship, deckhands are required to move around big, dangerous things. While alongside the deck, deckhands can also be hurt by hard landings and collisions with other vessel traffic.
Vessel owners, operators, and maritime employers should take all reasonable precautions to protect deckhands from the many hazards they face on the job. If they don’t, deckhands may suffer the ultimate cost in the form of a personal injury or early death. Examples of severe deckhand injuries include:
Slip and fall
Trip and fall
Falling from a height
Traumatic brain injury
A fulltime deckhand role on any commercial vessel will almost certainly qualify the mariner for seaman status under the Jones Act. Good news for deckhands, the Jones Act is a federal law that mandates a safe workplace for commercial seafarers. If a maritime employer is found to be negligent and the seaman is injured, the injured seafarer can make a claim for damages over and above medical expenses. Regardless of fault though, seamen are entitled to Maintenance and Cure—an ancient maritime common law remedy that pays for an injured maritime employee’s medical bills for a shipboard injury as well a living expenses stipend during treatment.
Injured seamen may also have a claim against vessel owners for unseaworthy conditions that cause their injuries. Unseaworthiness is an admiralty law concept that has been around for centuries. You may be surprised by what qualifies as an unseaworthy condition. Common examples can include slippery decks, malfunctioning equipment, or even incompetent crewmembers.
Maritime law can be difficult to discern—even for people that went to law school. It requires a good understanding of the marine transportation industry and experience in maritime litigation. Consequently, it may be hard to understand what you are entitled to after injury on the job in service of a vessel. The best way to be sure is to call and talk to a seasoned maritime attorney. You may be entitled to compensation for an injury at work or the death of a loved one at sea.
Mariner Law, PLLC represents injured mariners and their families—never vessel owners. The firm offers free injury consultation to callers who just want to know what their options might be. This is undoubtedly a hard time in your life. Call a Jones Act lawyer at Mariner Law, PLLC to learn whether maritime law may apply to your benefit: (253) 600-2531. The firm proudly serves mariner clients in Washington, Oregon, New York, Connecticut, Alaska, and nationwide.