With year-round operations a part of the commercial shipping industry, seafarers know that when the temperature drops, risks increase. Exposure to freezing salt spray, blustery winds, and moisture represents significant health and safety risks for those working aboard commercial vessels. As a risk management strategy that is bolstered by commercial marine insurance, seafarers must understand winter and hypothermia risks. With this understanding and with measures to minimize its risks, safe shipboard operations can continue no matter what winter weather is experienced.

What is Hypothermia?

Defined by the Mayo Clinic as a dangerous drop in core body temperatures, hypothermia is a common risk in the commercial marine industry. Hypothermia can strike even if sea and air temperatures above freezing; long-term exposure to cold environments on deck or in refrigerated holds can contribute to the development of hypothermia.

There are three stages of the condition:

  • Mild hypothermia – body temperature drops to a range between 95 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Shivering, fatigue, and loss of coordination set in.
  • Moderate hypothermia – core temperatures drop to a range of 90-82 degrees Fahrenheit. Slowed breathing and heartbeat are symptoms.
  • Severe hypothermia – body temperatures less than 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit can lead to pulmonary edema, cardiac arrest, and eventually death.

Hypothermia risks are compounded by certain factors, including fatigue, alcohol and drug use, age, and medical conditions or medications. In the commercial marine environment, even mild hypothermia can be dangerous. Seafarers may lose coordination and be injured. In rough seas, this lack of coordination can result in a crewmember falling overboard, where cold water exacerbates hypothermia risks.

Protecting Seafarers from Hypothermia Risks

Commercial marine insurance is the foundation of any risk management program for the commercial shipping industry. Within broad risk mitigation strategies, protecting workers from shipboard risks is paramount. Hypothermia can strike without warning, leaving crewmembers injured or even killed as a result. To better protect these vulnerable workers, crew managers and fleet owners must adopt safety-oriented winter practices.

Reducing hypothermia risks begins with training. Training workers to identify the warning signs and symptoms of the condition is critical, helping to spot problems before they can result in injury. Training must also include first aid responses, such as warming hypothermia victims and removing them from cold exposure.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is an important part of protecting maritime workers from hypothermia and cold-stress injury risks. PPE for cold conditions can include:

  • Insulated coveralls or jackets/pants
  • Gloves
  • Insulated footwear
  • Hats or other head coverings

For workers exposed to moisture, such as spray or immersion, waterproof coverings can prevent hypothermia from endangering lives. Specialized drysuits may be needed in severe sea and weather conditions.

Warm-up breaks can help to prevent hypothermia from developing. Crew managers should implement periodic breaks for those exposed to cold temperatures – even for workers in refrigerated holds or cargo areas. Managers and fleet owners have a responsibility to provide safe workspaces for their employees. With commercial marine insurance and winter-weather best practices, the chances of a hypothermia incident are greatly reduced.

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.