The winter months bring numerous challenges for the commercial marine industry. From shipbuilding operations to marinas and boat storage facilities, freezing temperatures and severe weather conditions can create significant workplace hazards. These risks not only affect daily operations but can put workers at risk of injury or even death. Commercial marine insurance is designed to help provide coverage against expected and unforeseen risks. These valuable insurance policies are supplemented by a clear understanding of the risks inherent in winter operations, particularly in protecting workers from hypothermia.

Hypothermia: A Deadly Risk for Commercial Marine Workers

Hypothermia is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a condition where the human body loses heat faster than it can be produced, leading to a drop in core body temperature. 95 degrees Fahrenheit is the core temperature threshold for mild hypothermia; in severe cases, core temperatures may drop even lower. If the core temperature drops below 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit, profound hypothermia can have life-threatening consequences. 

Early symptoms of mild hypothermia include confusion, loss of coordination, drowsiness, slurred speech, and uncontrollable shivering. Each of these symptoms represents a potential risk; many workers have been injured in the maritime workplace environment long before moderate or profound hypothermia symptoms sets in. If the core temperature is not raised to normal levels (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the condition can lead to respiratory and circulatory system failure and eventually death. 

Commercial marine workers are at a high risk of developing hypothermia and other cold stress injuries during the winter months. Marine operations typically take place outdoors, such as in shipyards, docks, and marinas, potentially subjecting workers to prolonged cold exposure. Workplace proximity to water only adds to the risks; freezing winds coming off the water or splashing/immersion in cold water can have devastating effects. It is important to note that the air temperature does not need to be at or below freezing to create situations where workers run the risk of developing hypothermia.

In addition to hypothermia, commercial marine workers may also experience cold stress injuries like:

  • Frostbite
  • Chilblains
  • Immersion (“Trench”) Foot

Protecting Maritime Workers from Hypothermia Risks

Just as commercial marine insurance serves as a foundation of risk management, protecting maritime workers from the effects of prolonged cold weather helps ensure a safe, productive workplace. When winter weather approaches, it is imperative that marina and shipbuilding owners take the necessary steps to prevent injuries related to hypothermia and other cold-temperature stresses.

Protecting maritime workers begins with training on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and what to do if those signs are encountered. First aid responses should be a component of this training, allowing maritime workers to gain an understanding of the reaction to and treatment of cold stress injuries.

On the employer side, providing personal protective equipment (PPE) when temperatures drop is a smart solution to prevent injury. Cold-weather PPE can include:

  • Gloves or insulated hand coverings
  • Insulated overalls or coveralls
  • Insulated footwear
  • Hats, caps, or other head coverings
  • Waterproof coverings for employees subjected to spray or immersion in cold water

Workers that need to spend significant time outdoors during the winter should be allowed to take regular “warm-up” breaks indoors or in heated enclosures. This step is critical in preventing hypothermia cases. Winter weather exposes marine workers to serious risks, and while employees with mild hypothermia recover with no aftereffects, more severe cases may result in lost worktime and expensive medical attention. At worst, hypothermia can cause death. This condition is entirely preventable; commercial marine entities have a duty to protect their workers, and by following the recommendations above, they can ensure worker safety even when temperatures plummet. 

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.