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Tugboats And Barges: Accidents And Injuries

Because of the inherently dangerous nature of work as a seaman on a tugboat, the law has long viewed sailors as "wards of admiralty" and imposes the responsibility for caring for seamen who get injured in the course of their duties on tug owners and operators. Traditionally, tug owners had to provide transportation back to land and continue to pay an injured sailor's wages until the end of the voyage during which the sailor was injured, and then provide "maintenance and cure" until the sailor recovered.

Congress passed the Jones Act in 1920 in an effort to strengthen the maritime industry in the U.S. and address serious concerns related to maritime work. One of the provisions of that Act expanded the types of claims that sailors could bring when they were injured. The ability of seamen to recover for injuries against vessel owners is particularly important for those who work on tugboats, since seamen on tugboats face especially dangerous working conditions. It is important to understand why working on tugboats is so dangerous and under what circumstances owners are responsible for the injuries of seamen working on tugboats.

Dangers for Crew Members on Tugboats

The high horsepower of tugboats, the employment of large winches and drums, and the use of large towing lines present special safety concerns for those who work aboard tugs. The deck is the most dangerous place on a tugboat. Working out on deck, the crew is exposed to the dangerous of getting in the bite of a line, slippery conditions out on deck, sometimes ice or oil, heavy lifting, the risk of falling overboard or being crushed between the tug and the dock, and other serious hazards. It is a dangerous industry made worse if the company ignores important safety rules.

Container ships that tugboats escort into harbors are getting larger and heavier each year and oftentimes carry crewmembers that speak different languages. When assisting these vessels in the harbor, the tug crew must coordinate their activities with the crew of the cargo ship. If a line parts on the container ship or the crew drops a large line on the tug crew, serious injuries can occur.

One of the unique features of a tugboat is the system of winches or tow drums and steel cables that allow the boat to tow barges around. These systems pose a particular danger to crew members, as the crew could get entangled in the steel wires while the wires are in motion or be hit by a wire that parts. Tugs often use Kevlar lines, which can be dropped into the water and entangled in the vessel's propellers. Additionally the towing equipment takes up space on the relatively small deck of the tugboat, making it very easy for crew members to trip over.

Because tugboat crew members often hook barges up to the tugboat so that the tugboat can tow the barges, they run the risk of falling off of the barges into the water. There is also danger of crew members losing their footing when jumping from barge to barge when hooking up multiple barges to one tugboat because the decks are slippery. The crew members also face injury from lifting heavy shackles and chains used in their towing work.


Ship and tug owners have a duty to provide their sailors with a reasonably safe work environment. Under the Jones Act, a seaman who is injured while working may bring an action against his or her employer for damages, if the employer or one of the employer's agents was negligent in any way. The negligence need not have rendered the ship unseaworthy for the injured sailor to be able to recover. The injury must occur while the seaman is in the service of a vessel in navigable waters. However, a seaman may still be entitled to coverage for injuries ashore while engaged in the ship's business or while commuting to the vessel, or under a variety of other circumstances. Jones Act seaman should consult with an experience maritime lawyer to determine whether injuries ashore may be covered under the Jones Act. Whether coverage extends to these workers requires a fact-intensive inquiry.

The sailor may recover for pain and suffering, lost wages and other damages. An injured sailor can bring these claims for negligence under the Jones Act, in addition to receiving the traditional maintenance and cure payments which injured sailors receive without needing to show negligence on the part of the ship owner or agent.

If the seaman dies while working, the Jones Act allows his or her survivors to bring a wrongful death action against the employer.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations apply to longshoring and marine terminals, so when tugboats are in harbors, employers need to ensure that they are meeting these federal safety regulations as well. The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSH Act) imposes a duty on employers to provide a workplace free from "recognized, serious safety hazards." While there is a split of authority as to whether violation of an OSHA safety regulation would conclusively prove negligence on the part of a ship owner if an injured sailor were to bring a suit under the Jones Act, at the very least showing that the ship owner was not meeting OSHA safety regulations could be evidence of the owner's negligence.

Tugboat Operators Who Do Not Meet Safety Standards

There are several tugboat companies in Washington and Alaska which have previously failed to provide safe working environments for their employees. These companies include:

Working on a tugboat is a dangerous job. Tugboat owners have a responsibility to make the job as safe as possible for crew members and to pay if a crew member is injured while working. Unfortunately, many tugboat companies fail to meet their responsibilities. If you or someone you love has been injured while working on a tugboat, do not hesitate to contact an attorney who can discuss your options with you.