Man Overboard Incidents & Offshore Safety

A fall overboard is one of the most serious types of offshore accidents. It places the crew member at immediate risk of drowning or hypothermia, depending on sea conditions. Because of the significant risks posed by man overboard incidents, maritime employers are required to have measures in place to handle these emergencies. They must also take steps to prevent falls in the first place, sound alarms when and if a person falls overboard, and avoid having seamen working on deck while alone or unsupervised.

Shockingly, half of man overboard fatalities are unwitnessed.

In a study of fatal falls overboard in commercial fishing by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), researchers analyzed incidents in United States waters from 2000 to 2016. During that time, 204 commercial fishermen died as a result of accidental falls overboard. In 121 of these incidents, the falls were not witnessed and 108 of those seamen were never found. Of the 86 man overboard incidents that were witnessed by crew members, 56 rescue attempts were made and 22 seamen were recovered but could not be resuscitated. None of the fishermen who died were wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs).

Preventing Man Overboard Fatalities

Falls overboard are not inevitable. The loss of offshore workers in man overboard incidents is unacceptable because these accidents are preventable. There are many ways that offshore companies and maritime employers can reduce falls overboard and increase the chances that a crew member can be rescued if they do fall into the water.

Personal Flotation Devices

Any seaman’s first line of defense against drowning after a fall overboard is a personal flotation device (PFD). There are all types of PFDs for different purposes, and crew members on offshore rigs and maritime vessels should be equipped with the right kind for their job duties and sea and weather conditions.

PFDs are crucial for any maritime worker, even the most experienced and competent swimmers. PFDs buy crew members valuable time to be rescued even if they are unconscious, cannot keep their head above water, or cannot swim effectively as a result of cold incapacitation. When the water is 59 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, an offshore worker may lose their ability to swim and may be overcome by cold shock, which causes uncontrollable gasping and affects strength and dexterity by as much as 60-80%.

Personal flotation devices can keep an offshore worker afloat long enough to be rescued.

Man-Overboard Alarms

A man-overboard alarm is a small device that can be attached directly to a maritime worker’s clothing or gear. If the device is immersed in water, it immediately sends a signal to a special receiver on the vessel that sounds an alarm and allows for quick rescue efforts. Because so many man overboard incidents are unwitnessed, devices like these should be worn by any worker on deck. They could mean the difference between life and death by enabling a swift search and rescue.

Man Overboard Rescue Equipment

Retrieving a crew member who has fallen overboard is not necessarily an easy task. Depending on the type of offshore platform or vessel, the distance to the water may be great. There may be limited reboarding ladders or access points where a worker can be hoisted back onto the vessel, and in rough waters or when a crew member is unconscious, using retrieval devices can be challenging.

More effective devices, such as lifting slings and PFDs that keep an unconscious victim’s head above water can make a significant difference in the success of recovery efforts.

Man Overboard Safety Training & Drills

When crews are properly trained and drilled on man overboard incidents, their ability to complete a successful rescue and recovery will be far greater. Maritime employers should ensure that all crew members are trained on how to handle man overboard incidents, both as victims and rescuers, and they should conduct routine drills to make sure every worker knows what to do – and what not to do – if a person should fall overboard.

Adequate Medical Attention

Another factor that makes man overboard incidents so serious is the fact that they occur far from shore, where advanced medical attention is typically unavailable. Crew members should be trained on CPR and how to rewarm a person who is suffering from early stages or advanced hypothermia from falling into cold waters. This will improve the chances of survival after a man overboard is rescued.

Proper Supervision

Given the sheer amount of man overboard incidents that go unwitnessed, proper supervision of offshore workers on deck is essential. Crew members should not work on deck alone, and they should be wearing man-overboard alarms. Otherwise, they may fall without anyone knowing until it’s too late.

Reducing Fall Overboard Hazards

Eliminating falls overboard starts with reducing the hazards that cause maritime workers to fall in the first place. Lifelines and tethers can help workers while performing particularly hazardous tasks, proper maintenance of winches and cranes can help prevent workers from entanglement or being struck and pushed overboard, and decks can be treated with non-skid materials and cleared of hazards that could cause slips or trips and falls overboard.

Offshore platforms and all maritime vessels should be properly maintained to ensure they are free from unnecessary threats that would put crew members in danger of falling overboard.

Helping Offshore Workers Since 2004

Preventing falls overboard and implementing better rescue and recovery methods are just two of the ways that maritime employers should protect their workers. At Arnold & Itkin, we help people who have suffered the consequences of lax safety practices and the habit of putting production above all else in the oil and gas industry. We have helped numerous families who have lost loved ones in man overboard accidents, fighting to hold at-fault parties accountable and helping these good people find closure and get the support they need. To find out more about our maritime lawyers and the ways we can help you, call (888) 346-5024 or contact us online.

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