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Hypothermia at sea, a major risk for maritime workers


One of the biggest dangers to sailors when falling into the water is the risk of hypothermia. Hypothermia is the medical term for a condition where the bodies temperature drops below the temperature required for metabolism and normal bodily functions. This occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can generate heat and body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). When severe, hypothermia can cause permanent damage and even death.

In the case of the missing barge worker from Maryland, the Coast Guard suspended its search once the possibility of death from hypothermia became inevitable.

The most common causes of hypothermia are prolonged exposure to cold weather or to cold water, but these are everyday working conditions for many who work on or near the sea. OSHA recognizes both hypothermia and frost bite as high risks for maritime workers. Maritime workers who  sustain cold-related injuries while on the job are eligible for compensation.

It doesn’t have to bitterly cold to catch hypothermia. One can even catch hypothermia in warm Louisiana waters. A prolonged stay in water below 98.6 degrees can chill the body enough to do permanent damage. Health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension can increase the risk for hypothermia.

Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia

There are three stages of hypothermia. Each stage has its own signs, symptoms and risks.
Stage 1

  • Body temperature of 95 to 96.6 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Mild to strong shivering
  • Numb hands, it will be difficult to perform complex tasks
  • Quick, shallow breathing
  • Goose bumps
  • Blood vessels in outer extremities constrict
  • Stomach upset
  • Extreme exhaustion
  • Warm sensation, this means the victim is headed to Stage 2

Stage 2

  • Body temperature of 91 to 94.8 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Violent shivering
  • Muscles stop working, in early Stage 2, victim willnot be able to touch thumb to little finger
  • Slow and labored movement
  • Stumbling
  • Mild confusion, but victim may appear alert
  • Surface blood vessels continue to contract
  • Pale skin
  • Lips, ears, fingers and toes may turn blue

Stage 3

  • Body temperature drops below 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Shivering stops
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Sluggish thinking
  • Amnesia
  • Inability to use hands
  • Stumbling
  • Cellular metabolic processes shut down
  • Body temperature drops below 86.0 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Exposed skin becomes blue and puffy
  • Victim becomes incoherent or irrational
  • Pulse and respiration decrease
  • Fast heart rates may occur
  • Terminal burrowing
  • Paradoxical undressing
  • Stupor
  • Clinical death

Hypothermia is often accompanied by frost bite.

Preventing Hypothermia

  • Recognize that hypothermia is a workplace danger and learn the signs and symptoms.
  • Make sure workers are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and know what to do to help co-workers.
  • Wear layers of appropriate clothing. Wool and synthetic clothing provide the best insulation when wet. Wear a hat and gloves.
  • Take breaks in warm dry shelters to allow the body to warm up.
  • Avoid exhaustion because energy is needed to keep muscles warm.
  • Work in pairs.
  • Drink warm beverages, but avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Eat warm, high-calorie foods.
  • Life vests may slow hypothermia.

Treating Hypothermia

  • Call for emergency assistance.
  • Move victim to a warm, dry area.
  • Do not rub affected areas.
  • Do not place victim in warm water, this can cause their heart to stop.

If you work on or near the water, you are covered by maritime law, and you may be eligible for compensation for your injuries. Contact the maritime injury attorneys at The Young Firm at 1-866-715-3664 for a free consultation with a Jones Act lawyer.



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