Offshore workers perform in some of the harshest working conditions of any industry. Not only is the nature of their work dangerous, but their work environment is also often filled with heavy cargo, steel platforms, slippery surfaces, and powerful machinery—any one of which could cause an accident resulting in deadly maritime injuries. One of the most severe injuries includes damage to the spinal cord, which may cause chronic pain, permanent disability, and even lifelong paralysis.

What Is a Spinal Cord Injury?

Just as the backbone connects all of the body’s limbs together, the spinal cord connects and coordinates all of the body’s nerve responses. It is the pathway for messages received through the senses to reach the brain, and from instructions from the brain to reach the limbs. If the spinal cord is damaged, a victim may lose feeling throughout the body and become Maritime Employees and Spinal Cord Injuriesunable to control bodily movements. If all feeling and motor control is lost, the victim has a complete spinal cord injury. If the victim can feel some sensation and control some bodily movements, he has suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury.

The effects of a spinal cord injury are usually irreversible, as the body cannot repair the damage to the spinal cord and it cannot be surgically reattached. The prognosis can vary widely, but it generally depends on two factors: the location of the injury and the severity of damage to the spinal cord. The higher the injury, the more likely it is that a victim will suffer lost function.

From the upper back to the lower back, an injury to the spinal cord may result in:

  • Coma or locked-in syndrome
  • Inability to breathe independently
  • Difficulty coughing or clearing mucus from the lungs
  • Loss of ability to smell, taste, or feel hot and cold
  • Loss of sensation through touch
  • Inability to respond to pain, heat, cold, or other stimuli
  • Inability to move one or more limbs
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Inability to perform sexually
  • Infertility
  • Chronic pain or “pins and needles” in the extremities
  • Exaggerated muscle movements (spasms) in the arms and legs

Common Ways Maritime Employees Suffer Spinal Cord Injury

The time between injury and treatment is a vital determining factor in the lifelong effects of the injury. This places seamen at a significant disadvantage, as they can be several hours or even days from shore, preventing the medical intervention necessary to avoid permanent injuries.

Workers on a ship, dock, or shipyard are also more likely to suffer severe spinal trauma due to:

  • Falls. Falls from rigging, between levels, off ladders, and falling overboard make up a significant portion of all work-related spinal cord injuries. Depending on the height and the force of the trauma, workers may suffer quadriplegia, paraplegia, or long-term mobility problems that prevent independent living.
  • Incorrect lifting procedures. Even when a worker does not suffer an impact to the spine, repeated bending, twisting, and heavy lifting can result in a spinal cord injury. The effects of strain on the back often begin with pain, tingling, or numbness in the extremities, and eventual herniation or fracture that causes inflammation of the spinal cord. Vessel operators are required to train employees on the correct ways to pull, push, and lift in order to prevent these injuries from occurring
  • Machinery failure. Defective or unsafe equipment may crush or pin employees, causing significant spinal injury. In this case, a Jones Act seaman could pursue a third-party claim for injury compensation or a claim against the owner if the vessel was unseaworthy.
  • Safety violations. Maritime employers can be held financially and legally responsible for spinal cord injuries caused by negligence. The most common forms of negligence are the failure to implement safety protocol, removing safeguards from machinery and equipment, and failure to minimize the effects of an injury.

An injury to a maritime worker can quickly end his entire career, preventing him from earning any future income. If you are a dockworker, commercial fisherman, longshoreman, or other maritime employee, you could be qualified to receive significant compensation for your medical bills and inability to work. As your payment will depend on which maritime laws apply to your employment, you will need a skilled attorney to examine the facts of your injury and build a strong case. The New York and New Jersey maritime lawyers of Hofmann & Schweitzer can take over the fight on your behalf, ensuring that you get the best possible resolution. Simply contact us online or call us directly at 212.465.8840 to schedule your free consultation. 


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