Summer means a lot of things to a lot of people, but for any American maritime worker who sails through our oceans, the summer months can just as easily be called “hurricane season”.
You don’t need us to tell you how dangerous hurricanes can be – dozens of lives are lost every year to these storms, to say nothing of the millions of dollars in property damage they cause. It isn’t all doom and gloom, however, and these accidents can be prevented (or at least mitigated) with some careful preparation and safety precautions.
If you’re working in hurricane-infested waters and you want to take a few extra steps to ensure your crew and vessel is as safe as possible during hurricane season, check out this list of extra precautions to take, equipment to have, and things to look out for this summer:
Document and practice your evacuation plan: It’s a good rule of thumb for every vessel and oil rig to have an evacuation plan in the event of a hurricane, and for many businesses this plan may be required by federal OSHA law and/or maritime law. Just because you have a plan on file, however, doesn’t mean it can be put in place when the time comes. As time permits, run drills of your evacuation plan so everyone knows where to go, and keep detailed descriptions (with maps where applicable) of your evacuation plan in every major common area your workers gather in – the more the better.
Do a spot check of all walkways. The Jones Act requires that all employers take steps to ensure a safe workplace, as free of hazard as possible, but when sailing into inclement weather, caution becomes even more important. When working on deck or in any elevated area that can be exposed to the elements such as the main floor of an oil rig, delegate time to check every surface and walkway to keep it free of obstructions or hazards. Puddles of water (or, even worse, oil or chemicals) need to be attended to immediately, and all work areas and walkways need to be kept as clear as possible of things like excess cables or discarded tools. In the event of an emergency, the last thing your team needs is to worry about tripping over some extension cords.
Increase the amount of communication and reporting with the shore. Ever since the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, steps have been made to increase the amount of communication required between vessels and the shoreline, particularly in dangerous conditions. As soon as a hurricane starts rolling in, make sure to up the amount of communication back to your land base and/or the Coast Guard (if needed) to keep as many agencies and contacts aware of your position as possible. Hopefully they won’t be needed, but if they are, it’s better that they can get to you as fast as possible.
Prepare for extra ballast. During a hurricane, you can’t rely on the water in your ballast down below to keep your stabilized. Particularly for vessels that have unloaded their cargo before venturing into the hurricane, keep your crew ready to start battening down the hatches (to borrow an old phrase) and start adding ballast where it’s needed most. Keep the ballast water topped off and make sure your crew can locate and secure any needed ballast tanks as the need arises, particularly when your ship is free of cargo and particularly vulnerable.
Secure everything you can. We do mean everything. A lot of ships will just stop at locking down their “lawn furniture” (meaning any furniture or accommodations on deck), but locking down everything possible will prevent injury or further damage, and may actually give you access to needed supplies in the event of an emergency. Secure any tools or supplies, make sure the lifeboats are properly fastened to prevent them coming loose before your team can get to them, and anything that can’t be stored safely needs to be put away below decks when the weather starts to turn on you.
And above all else, make sure you know your rights. Any ship sailing into dangerous waters has a mandated legal responsibility to provide the safest possible environment for its crew, and if you get injured while working on the water during hurricane season, you may be able to contact a Jones Act attorney like O’Bryan to seek financial compensation for your injury and hardships.