A recent investigation completed by the Coast Guard is a shocking example of what can go wrong when a maritime employer puts profit before people and safety. To be sure, several employees contributed to the accident in the case of the towboat ‘Mel Oliver’, but the ultimate blame lies with a company too focused on making money to take safety seriously.
In this case the ‘Mel Oliver’ was pushing an oil barge on the Mississippi River, and pushed it right into the oncoming path of a ship. The resulting collision split the oil barge in two, spilling 280,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Mississippi and shutting down river traffic for a week.
Abdicating responsibility for safety?
But this case was more than a simple waterway accident. At the helm of the towboat was an apprentice mate, piloting the vessel without a superior’s supervision, as required by his apprentice’s license. The master-licensed pilot of the towboat had abandoned ship several days earlier, and no other appropriately licensed pilot was put in charge.
Employees of the towing company claimed that the company routinely allowed low-level mariners to pilot boats instead of fully licensed pilots. Unfortunately, according to a recent investigation by the AP news service, this is not an isolated incident; many other companies have allegedly done exactly the same thing.
Employers take advantage of licensing changes
It used to be that apprentices were hand-selected for pilot training by experienced captains, a training and licensing program known as the ‘master’s system’. However, criticism from shipping companies that this time-intensive selection and training process was hampering their ability to move goods as older captains retired and not enough rookies were trained caused the Coast Guard to change the rules.
Early this decade the Coast Guard listened to the criticisms and concerns and revamped the system. Now employers can select apprentices, and an apprentice can take the helm of a tug or tow boat after only a year, a task that used to take several years to achieve.
What is the result? According to the AP investigation, waterways may have become less safe because of this change. While cargo volumes are only up 3 percent, accidents are up 25 percent, and in the same time period the number of new apprentice towing licenses jumped from 16 to 871.
Why would a company even consider putting a green pilot behind the wheel of a tugboat? Not surprisingly, there is a compelling profit motive. Employers have to pay a top-grade pilot $450 a day, but they can get away with paying apprentices only $175 a day.
Injured maritime workers deserve better
Is the shipping industry becoming overrun by inexperienced pilots? Are more accidents happening today than in the past because of a relentless drive to cut costs? No matter the reason, no maritime employee deserves to be put in a situation where their life or livelihood could be at risk because their employer wants to maximize their profits.
If you suspect that you were injured in a maritime accident because of your company’s negligence, then you need to speak to an experienced maritime law and Jones Act lawyer. Please contact the attorneys at the New Orleans based office of The Young Firm to find out how we can protect your rights and get you the compensation you deserve.
The Young Firm
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New Orleans, Louisiana 70130
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