The Dangers of Working on a Tugboat

When it comes to the dangers of offshore work, a few industries come to mind. Many people refer to the risks faced by offshore oil rig workers while others immediately think of the treacherous seas that fishermen face. However, there is one dangerous job that makes the maritime industry functional, and that isn’t talked about as frequently as others: working on a tugboat.

Tugboats are the workhorses of the offshore industry. They move barges, guide large ships, and make navigating harbors and small channels possible for many vessels. Generally, tugboats are used on the sea to move barges, oil platforms, disabled vessels, and other large equipment. Towboats, or river tugboats, are vessels that perform this type of task along rivers; some smaller vessels are often used on harbors. Large towboats, spanning up to 200 feet long, can push up to 50 large barges lashed together. A skilled crew of tireless mariners runs tugboats. Unfortunately, several tragedies have drawn attention to the inherent dangers faced both on the high seas and on rivers. The high horsepower of these industrial vessels means that they can be as dangerous as they are useful to the people who work on them.

Tugboat Hazards


One of the most obvious dangers that tugboats face is the size difference between them and the vessels they pull or push. Tugboats are at constant risk of collision with large vessels or even other tug vessels. So, ongoing communication is a must for captains and crews who wish to avoid a disaster.

Line Bites

When a tugboat needs to connect with a ship, crewmembers do something known as throwing a line. This involves throwing a large rope from a tugboat around a point on the other vessel or on a dock. Once connected, this line can dangerously tighten. If holding the wrong part of a rope during this process, a deckhand might experience a line bite, or a severe crushing or maiming of their fingers, hand, arm, legs, or another part of their body.

Dangers on Deck

The deck of a tugboat is filled with hazards. First, there’s the constant shifting of the sea and sudden movement caused by contact with another vessel during operations. Then, there’s the extreme weather that many tugboats operate in. Ice on a ship deck can make an already difficult environment even more hazardous. Furthermore, workers must manually lash barges together before they are pulled by the tugboat. This requires them to jump from barge to barge, sometimes in the night or under harsh conditions, significantly increasing the risk of drowning.

Falling Overboard

Falling from the side of a tugboat can mean so much more than getting wet. When a person falls of a tugboat, they risk getting caught between the their vessel and the one the tugboat is working with. This can result in serious crushing injuries.

Poor Visibility

When people think of a working tugboat, they picture a tiny vessel pulling another vessel through the water. However, many tugboats push the vessels they work, especially if the vessel is a barge. So, when pushing a barge, tugboat captains have very poor visibility while navigating two vessels that can have a combined length of well over 200 feet! Pushing a barge means that the captain and their crew must have perfect communication to avoid collisions and successfully navigate the water.


There are many things that can cause these vessels to capsize. As one of the most common factors to lead to a tugboat accident, capsizing is dangerous for the entire crew. Strong currents or mechanical failure are the most common causes of capsizing incidents. Both natural currents and wakes from other vessels have been known to cause tugboats to capsize. Not able to withstand the strength and size of currents, tugboats are easily compromised by the natural force of water.

Mechanical Failures

If tugboats aren't adequately maintained, they can have mechanical failures that cause a vessel to be vulnerable to currents, collisions, and other dangers. Tugboat operators must ensure their vessels are ready for rigorous work before sending workers out in them.

Getting Help After a Tugboat Accident

Despite the inherent dangers involved with this line of work, seamen are granted legal rights to reasonably safe work environments by legislation such as the Jones Act and the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act. Employers are held to certain regulations of safety and maintenance of their vessels in order to protect their workers from avoidable accidents. If you or a loved one was injured or killed in a tugboat or towboat accident, contact Arnold & Itkin to learn how our offshore injury attorneys may be able to help you recover compensation for your troubles and your injuries.

Contact Us

Get a Completely Free Evaluation of Your Case

  • Please enter your first name.
  • Please enter your last name.
  • Please enter your email address.
    This isn't a valid email address.
  • Please enter your phone number.
    This isn't a valid phone number.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please enter a message.