Cargo Ship on the Open SeaWorking as a merchant mariner offers an opportunity to see the work while earning a decent wage. However, it also poses countless hazards to workers in every department on the vessel. Our Jones Act injury lawyers explain the dangers of working as a merchant mariner for a private company, government-owned ship, coastal freighter, or another vessel.

Merchant Mariners Can Suffer Work Injuries at All Levels

A single vessel can have a hundred or more workers, each tasked with different duties. The three technical departments in a merchant marine operation are overseen by officers, ensuring all sections work together for the safe and efficient operation of the ship.

The Deck Department

The deck is the control center of the vessel, using computer-based systems to navigate across oceans and dock safely. When stopped at a port, the deck oversees cargo loading and unloading operations and safeguards the ship's and passengers' security. The top officer on the bridge is the captain, responsible for setting course and speed, avoiding hazards, and acting as the vessel owner’s representative.

In addition to the ship’s captain, workers in this sector include:

  • Officers. Various officers oversee vital aspects of the ship, including cargo planning, crew discipline, navigational equipment, lifeboats, firefighting measures, and signaling equipment. The significant pressures of commanding a vessel can cause substance abuse or bullying, eventually ending in physical violence.
  • Radio officers. Radio officers maintain electronic communications devices, depth-recording equipment, and electronic navigational aids (such as radar). Outdated equipment, misheard commands, or sailing in bad weather are significant causes of vessel collisions and allisions.
  • Boatswain. The boatswain assigns work details to the deck crew, oversees maintenance tasks, splices rope and wire for rigging, and is in charge of lifeboats and canvas coverings. Wet decks, poor lighting conditions, and obstacles blocking passageways are the leading causes of slips, trips, and falls while performing maintenance.
  • Seamen. Able seamen, or deckhands, perform general duties like preparing ropes or hoists for the cargo loading, cleaning or painting the vessel, and standing watch. Since vessel crews follow operational routines 24 hours a day, seven days a week, seamen will likely suffer accidents caused by heavy lifting, fatigue, or exposure to weather extremes.

The Engine Department

The engineering department runs the propulsion systems, power generators, and all other mechanical systems. The vessel would not be able to sail without the following:

  • Engineers. Proper maintenance is vital for the safe running of engines, boilers, boiler room equipment, fuel and water systems, and engine-room auxiliaries. The high noise levels and vibration hazards in engine rooms have been linked to occupational hearing loss.
  • Electricians. Electrotechnical employees must maintain and operate the vessel’s electronic and communications equipment. Onboard electricians may suffer shocks or burns from faulty circuits or even lose a finger while repairing motors.
  • Pumpmen. Also called wipers, these employees wipe down machinery, lubricate the moving parts of mechanical equipment, and keep the engine rooms clean. Pumpmen could suffer serious burn injuries or disfigurement without proper fire safety protocols.
  • Deck-engine mechanics. These specialized workers, also known as oilers or fire-water tenders, are needed to keep the steam pressure constant in the boilers. Mechanics face a daily risk of thermal burns or explosions, especially if the pressure gauges malfunction.

The Steward Department

Employees in the steward department are responsible for ensuring proper living conditions for the crew, including preparing meals and maintaining crew quarters. Workers in this sector include:

  • Stewards. The chief steward's key functions are food preparation, mess hall operation, and maintenance of living quarters. Accurate food inventory records and voyage requisitions are essential for keeping the ship stocked throughout its journey. Falls in narrow passageways and repetitive strain injuries are often seen in ship stewards.
  • Cooks. Cooks and bakers must adhere to kitchen safety standards while working in confined environments, increasing the risk of heat stroke, dehydration, burns, and knife injuries.
  • Mess attendants. These servers set tables, bring meals to crew members, wash dishes, and maintain officers' and crew quarters. In addition to overwork injuries, mess attendants risk contracting contagious diseases due to constant exposure to crew quarters.

Get Help From a New York Maritime Injury Lawyer

The legal team at Hofmann & Schweitzer protects the rights of the dedicated men and women sailing on U.S.-flagged vessels worldwide. If you were injured as a merchant mariner, we explore your compensation options and don’t collect any payment unless we win your case. Call us at 1-800-3-MAY-DAY or learn more about your claim in our complimentary guide, Are You a Seaman Injured in a Maritime Accident? Know Your Rights.


Paul T. Hofmann
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Focused on personal injury, with an emphasis on maritime, railroad and construction worker tort claims.