What Is a Seaman?

Put into its most simple terms, a seaman is someone who is employed on a ship's crew. The maritime term seaman could refer to an individual who holds a noncommissioned rank in the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard or someone who works on a vessel for their career, including handling, sailing, and navigating the ship. 

The term “seaman” may have different meanings depending on the context. Here, we will consider several types of seamen and the implications under maritime law.

Ordinary Seaman (OS)

Ordinary seaman (OS) is an entry-level position on a ship. To qualify as an OS, you do not need to have any previous experience, pass any particular exams, or have specific training. OS are hired to be trained on the job and can either advance to become able seamen or work in the engine department.

Able Seaman (AB)

An able seaman (AB), or an able-bodied seaman, is a crew member with specific training and vessel experience. An AB has a higher level of training and responsibility than an ordinary seaman and is qualified to perform various tasks, including serving as a lookout or helmsman, operating deck gear, and handling mooring and anchoring operations.

To become an able seaman in the United States, an individual must meet specific requirements and be certified by the U.S. Coast Guard. In almost all cases, an individual must have an AB certification to be considered for hire; one exception occurs when a vessel hires an AB apprentice to work toward certification.

To achieve AB certification, one must:

  • Be 18 years or older
  • Pass a medical exam
  • Serve at least 180 days on a vessel
  • Pass a written exam that covers various maritime topics
  • Earn their lifeboatman certification
  • Apply for a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card
  • Provide proof of drug screening enrollment 

Individual seamen seeking AB certification will be tested not only on survival techniques, but also on their ability to prevent and fight fires and to administer first aid.

The following ranks can be achieved with certain amounts of deck service:

  • AB-Sail – 180 days on sailing vessels on any U.S. navigable waters
  • AB-Fishing– 180 days on any U.S. navigable waters
  • AB-Offshore Supply Vessel (OSV) – 6 months on Oceans or U.S. vessels
  • AB-Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit (MODU) – 360 days aboard a 65-foot vessel or larger
  • AB-Special – 360 days on U.S. navigable waters
  • AB-Limited – 540 days on vessels of 100+ gross tons
  • AB-Unlimited – 1080 days on Great Lakes or Oceans

Once a seaman is certified, they will need to carry two credentials at all times. The first is the Transportation Worker Identification Certification (TWIC) card; the second is their merchant mariner credential (MMC).

Seaman Qualification Under the Jones Act

Being classified as a seaman provides legal benefits to maritime workers under the Jones Act (more formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920). For example, maritime employees who have the status of seaman have access to benefits that would otherwise be denied, including the protection of wages and working conditions, as well as legal remedies made available should they suffer a workplace injury.

The Jones Act applies to seamen who are injured while working in service to a vessel. However, it does not define who qualifies as a seaman; therefore, it is often difficult for a maritime worker to make the determination about seaman status on his own. When assessing whether a vessel worker qualifies under the definition of "seaman," the court uses a three-part test. The result of the test determines the rights and protection of the worker.

The following are three parts of the seaman status test:

  • Vessel Assignment: Seamen must be assigned to a vessel active on its own or in a fleet, the vessel cannot be permanently moored, and the vessel must be operating on a navigable waterway. The court will determine what qualifies as a navigable waterway by the location of the body of water and its connection to other waterways.
  • Vessel Contribution: The capacity and the duties that the worker performs must contribute to the function of the vessel, the accomplishment of its mission, or the operation or welfare of the vessel in terms of maintenance during its movement or anchorage for future trips. Courts examine the injured worker's duties in relation to the vessel's operation. Deckhands and engineers, for example, meet this definition of the seaman status test.
  • Vessel Connection: A significant amount of the worker's time must be spent aboard a vessel, performing duties that contribute to or are connected to the vessel. For example, a dockside welder who occasionally goes out to barges might not qualify as a seaman because his primary duties take place on land and his presence on the vessel is transient. Seaman status does not require that 100% of the worker's time be spent on a vessel, but it must be more than an occasional occurrence and must be considered "continuous attachment."

If you are considered a seaman who contributes to the work of a vessel in navigable water, if you are hurt on the job, you may be able to file a claim under the Jones Act. If the accident was due to an employer or coworker’s negligence, then to recover more compensation, a seaman would have to file a negligence claim and have to establish that someone else was at fault for their injuries. 

Unlike other negligence claims, it isn't necessary to prove that someone else shares the majority of the blame; it is only necessary to prove that someone else's recklessness or carelessness played any part at all in the accident that caused your injury. Because of this lower "burden of proof", the most difficult part of filing a Jones Act claim can be asserting that you should be considered a seaman. Since this classification as a seaman is such a crucial part of these claims, the term and who qualifies for it has been intensely debated for years, and this is only likely to continue.

When Is an Offshore Worker Considered a Seaman?

Not everyone who works offshore is a seaman. For instance, if you work on certain types of oil platforms, they might not count as a vessel, and any work done there would not go towards qualifying as a seaman (though you might still have legal options, such as an LHWCA claim).

Since seeking compensation under the Jones Act sometimes will involve filing a negligence claim against one's employer, just like there is with any other form of work injury cases, there can be pushback from the employer and the insurance company. If you are an offshore worker who needs compensation through the Jones Act, it is important to be able to prove that you fulfill each aspect of qualifying for seaman classification.

What Kind of Vessel Does a Seaman Have to Work On?

A vessel can mean more than a ship or a boat. A vessel technically only needs to be a watercraft that is operable, able to float, and in navigable waters. While working on oil platforms was not always viewed as working on a Jones Act vessel, a 2005 Supreme Court ruling determined that to count as a Jones Act vessel, it wasn't necessary to be self-propelled. Accordingly, there are some offshore platforms that would qualify under the Jones Act.

Some examples of watercraft that can be counted as a Jones Act vessel include:

If a qualifying vessel is not navigating the seas but is in the harbor, it could still qualify as a Jones Act vessel, but if it's in a drydock for maintenance and repairs, then it is probably no longer considered a Jones Act vessel. If it is a newly constructed watercraft that is still being tested in the waters and hasn't been deemed seaworthy yet, then it may not yet count as a vessel either.

For more information on your rights as a seaman, contact Arnold & Itkin.

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