The Dangers of Working Offshore, Part 3: The Players
April 16, 2015 was a cloudy morning. The deck of the passenger ferry MV Sewol was buzzing with high school students on a school trip, accompanied by over 325 classmates and several of their teachers. Both crew and passengers ate breakfast in the dining hall, walked around on the deck, and enjoyed the morning. The captain was in his private quarters, while the ship’s third mate was holding down the bridge. The ship was delayed the night before thanks to a thick fog, but it had cleared.
Shortly before 9 am, the Korean ship made a sharp turn that caused it to list (lean to one side). Reports later found that the ship’s crew was instructed not to turn the ship more than 5 degrees at a time. For ships that size, the general practice is to turn it 5 degrees over the course of a couple minutes, in small increments.
The third mate, with only a year of experience steering ships, had the ferry turn 10 degrees in a second.
The turn alone would threaten the ship’s stability, but the ferry was also overloaded with improperly secured cargo—the record showed that it had twice the maximum cargo load onboard, with half the required amount of ballast. This put the ship in a position roughly analogous to a man on one foot carrying a piano: far too much weight, not enough stability.
As the ship listed and began to capsize, the passengers were instructed to stay where they were. Marine authorities are still puzzled at this order—in situations like this, it’s almost always better to move passengers to upper decks where exiting the ship is easier. Instead, hundreds of high school students stayed in their quarters, with few routes of escape.
Meanwhile, the captain (who was substituting for the ship’s regular captain) and other high-level crew members abandoned ship. The order to stay in place rang out behind them as they climbed into a lifeboat.
An inexperienced crew member running the bridge. Too much weight and too little ballast to be seaworthy. Fatal orders to tell passengers to stay put, even as the cabins took on water. A captain who abandoned his passengers and staff.
Of the 476 crew and passengers, 294 were confirmed dead, with 10 missing. Most of those killed were students and teachers, alongside members of the vessel's crew. Some passengers died in the days following.
The Players in the Maritime Landscape
In the MV Sewol disaster, what’s most striking is that there were no disastrous outside circumstances. It wasn’t storming, the ship didn’t collide with a reef or experience mechanical failure—it was purely a result of too many negligent factors happening at once and poor communication. It was a combination of human mistakes.
All maritime companies are run by human beings. Fallible people who have to make decisions that are responsible for hundreds of lives at a time. Most of the time, vessel captains or rig managers aren’t responsible for passengers—they’re responsible for their own crew, whose safety matters as much and who are equally vulnerable to death or injury at sea.
The largest players in the maritime industry—the shipping companies, oil companies, and fishing vessels—aren’t immune to human mistakes. While these companies often have detailed procedures to guide the decisions of their captains and managers, ultimately it is the company’s culture and people who will guide operations to safety (or disaster).
If a company has a culture that encourages profit over safety, reckless over cautious and careful, then no amount of procedure will make a difference. Under those circumstances, it’s only a matter of time before an offshore worker is harmed. When a company owns the largest operations in the maritime industry, the stakes are even higher.
Below, we’ve assembled a list of some of the industry’s biggest players, including their output and their history of negligence.
The 5 Largest Oil Companies Operating in the Gulf of Mexico (Barrels per Year)
- Shell Offshore (89.4 million barrels)
- BP [British Petroleum] (84.1 million barrels)
- Chevron (43.9 million barrels)
- BHP Billiton Petroleum (34.2 million barrels)
- Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (20.5 million barrels)
Notable on this list is the presence of British Petroleum—the owners and operators of the Deepwater Horizon, the oil platform which exploded in 2010, killing 11 crew and injuring 17. BP had been cutting corners on their safety practice, leaving vital safety components vulnerable to catastrophic failure while overworking their crews.
In a perfect and tragic example of what happens when large companies value profit over safety, their practices led to the death of nearly a dozen men, while causing irreparable harm to the Gulf’s once-vibrant environment and fishing industry. Experts believe the damage caused by the spill will hurt the Gulf’s economy and ecosystem for decades to come.
Anadarko, who were part-owners of the Deepwater Horizon well, also paid $160 million in fines. However, many believe this was far too small a punishment for their part in the disaster—Anadarko allegedly urged BP to continue drilling deeper into the well when BP was hesitant. This may have contributed to the incident.
The 5 Largest Shipping Companies Operating in U.S. Ports (by Annual Revenue)
- Maersk ($40.3 billion) – 14 U.S. HQs
- NYK Line ($20.1 billion) – 170 subsidiaries in the U.S.
- CMA CGM ($15.7 billion) – based in Virginia. Third largest shipping company in the world.
- Hapag-Lloyd ($12 billion) – 25 U.S. offices
- Hanjin ($8.3 billion) – 22 U.S. offices, including Houston
By far, the largest shipping company (with the most mind-boggling annual output) is Maersk, a Denmark-based company with 100 years of history. They have 14 offices in U.S. cities, including Dallas. They ship $675 billion in goods a year—larger than the GDPs of some European nations. Their fleet includes 590 ships that travel to 115 countries worldwide.
It was a Maersk ship that was boarded by Somali pirates in 2009, forming the basis for the movie Captain Phillips. In stark contrast to the heroic captain in the film, however, the crew alleges that Phillips knew about dangerous pirate activity in the area but refused to sail further away from the coast. In fact, the captain had been conducting an annual fire drill when pirates were spotted less than 7 miles away. Rather than follow procedure, he ordered his crew to continue the fire drill.
This behavior not only flew in the face of all anti-pirate measures, but it endangered his crew and forced them to hide for 12 hours in a room heated to 130 degrees. Eventually, the crew received control when the pirates left with Captain Phillips.
The 7 Largest U.S. Fishing Ports (by Volume)
Offshore workers include more than just oil rig or shipping crews. Fishing vessels and loading docks are also dangerous workplaces for workers. In fact, over an 18-year period, fishing vessels were the sites of 38% of all major marine casualties.
The following ports are the most active fishing ports in the nation:
- Dutch Harbor, Alaska ($214 million, 752 million pounds)
- Empire-Venice, Louisiana ($80 million, 500 million pounds)
- Aleutian Islands, Alaska ($119 million, 456 million pounds)
- Kodiak, Alaska ($170 million, 393 million pounds)
- Reedville, Virginia ($35 million, 389 million pounds)
- Intracoastal City, Louisiana ($44 million, 345 million pounds)
- New Bedford, Massachusetts ($411 million, 143 million pounds)
Together, these ports account for roughly a third of all domestic seafood caught off U.S. shores.
Why These Companies Matter
When our firm represents our clients, we fight tooth and nail to get them the medical care and security they deserve. However, large verdicts serve another purpose—they force companies to take safety precautions seriously.
The key to developing a safer industry is deterrence. When a poor safety culture results in the harm of an offshore worker, fines and injury claims can be used to show the negligent company that a safe ship is more cost-effective. Lawyers and agencies are obligated to make the cost of failure higher than the cost of better practices.
For these large companies, their influence and their culture matters more than smaller companies. Don’t get us wrong—life-altering injuries and tragedy can occur with any company. We’ve represented clients against plenty of lesser-known companies who robbed them of their livelihoods and health. But companies like Maersk, BP, or Shell have the ability to (figuratively and literally) shape the landscape of the industry—for good or ill.
For that reason alone, holding these companies accountable comes with higher stakes than most situations. Take Anadarko, for example. They paid a fine for the 2010 oil disaster that represented about 4% of what they could have been liable to pay under the law. For a company with $3 billion in annual revenue, a $160 million fine is not going to change a thing.
Facing these maritime giants is our obligation. Making them pay for their actions is the only way to shape the industry from the outside, both for the sake of injured workers and workers who have yet to be harmed.
That’s why these companies (and ports) matter.