Whether operating a boat for recreation or working at sea aboard a commercial vessel, seafarers face numerous risks. In the commercial shipping environment, year-round operations mean that shipboard workers can be exposed to severe weather, particularly in winter. Commercial marine insurance is the foundation upon which is built a robust risk management strategy. Seafarers can supplement the insurance protection by understanding winter weather risks in order to develop safety-oriented practices while at sea. By identifying these risks, the potential for life-threatening incidents can be prevented.

Winter Risks in the Commercial Marine Environment

When winter descends, the season brings with it many perils for seafarers. Freezing temperatures, winds, precipitation, and wave activity can create havoc both at sea and on land. Common shipboard risks include:

  • Hypothermia
  • Slip and fall injuries
  • Personnel overboard
  • Injuries from falling ice or debris

Of these risks, hypothermia has the greatest potential to cause injury or death. Even if temperatures are above freezing, long-term exposure to wind and water can result in severe impairment which can lead to life-threatening conditions. When the temperature is well below freezing, hypothermia can strike quickly, putting seafarers at risk. Risk management is backed by commercial marine insurance; in cold weather, being aware of potentially dangerous winter conditions can help to save the lives of mariners.

What is Hypothermia?

In medical terms, hypothermia is a condition where the human body’s natural internal temperature falls below a safe range. Body temperature is regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain and normal temperature is held around 98 degrees Fahrenheit (36-37 degrees Celsius). After exposure to cold air or water temperatures, the hypothalamus is no longer able to regulate internal temperatures. In severe cases on or near the water, confusion and loss of mobility can lead to even more alarming events, such as seafarers falling overboard.

There are three stages of hypothermia:

Mild hypothermia – occurring when the body temperature drops to a range of 35-32 degrees Celsius. Movements are slowed, judgement is impaired, and shivering sets in.

Moderate hypothermia – as body temperatures drop to a range of 32-28 degrees Celsius, more profound physiological and mental effects set in. A moderately hypothermic seafarer may struggle to maintain consciousness as his or her heartbeat slows. Internal organs begin to shut down to conserve heat. Breathing may also be impaired.

Profound hypothermia – when the body temperature falls below 28 degrees Celsius, blood pressure drops alarmingly, and the victim is subject to respiratory and heart failure. Affected individuals may slip into a coma. As body temperatures continue to drop, the victim’s heart may stop beating, causing death.

If a seafarer becomes wet in cold weather, the chances of developing one or more of the stages of hypothermia increases. In very cold water, a seafarer falling overboard may have only minutes before he or she succumbs to hypothermia.

Preventing Winter Injuries at Sea

Mariners face many challenges at sea or in shoreside facilities like ports and docks. Winter weather compounds these risks. To help prevent injury or death, seafarers must take steps to reduce or eliminate the common hazards. Hazard mitigation in winter includes:

  • Removing accumulations of ice and snow from decks or walkways.
  • Removing ice from overhead structures to prevent falling injuries.
  • Ensuring guardrails and safety netting are in place to prevent overboard injuries.
  • Providing ship and dock workers with adequate winter weather gear.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is an important part of risk management in the shipping industry, just like commercial marine insurance. As winter weather approaches, PPE may need to be substituted for items that are designed to keep seafarers safe in cold conditions. Winter PPE often includes:

  • Insulated coveralls
  • Waterproof coverings, including jackets and pants or coveralls
  • Gloves
  • Insulated work boots
  • Insulated hats

Seafarers working on exposed decks may require specialized drysuits, particularly if the risk of an overboard injury is great. These protective suits keep individuals dry, allowing them to survive until they can be pulled to safety from the water.

Ship captains and portside facility managers must be ready to identify winter risks in order to keep themselves and their crews safe. With commercial marine insurance and the injury prevention tips above, shipping can continue safely no matter what winter conditions arise.

About Merrimac Marine Insurance

At Merrimac Marine, we are dedicated to providing insurance for the marine industry to protect your clients’ business and assets. For more information about our products and programs, contact our specialists today at (800) 681-1998.