This year marks 100 years of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. Its section called the Jones Act is probably the most important for the health and safety of Americans working on U.S. coastal waters and inland rivers.
The Jones Act requires the owners of vessels to give workers a seaworthy vessel as their workplace. What “seaworthy” means under maritime law is a little unusual but understanding it can help you understand your rights and how you might hold your employers accountable for your work-related injuries or illnesses.
Seaworthiness is an owner’s key responsibility to workers
Seamen are not eligible for the same state workers’ compensation programs that protect access to health care and other compensation when land-bound workers become sick or injured because of their job. Instead, the Jones Act is there to help workers on the water.
A critically important part of the law requires owners to provide seaworthy vessels for all seamen. If a vessel is unseaworthy in even the smallest way, owners are “liable,” meaning legally responsible for their actions or failures to act.
Seaworthiness can mean many things
Many people may imagine an unseaworthy vessel as a boat that sinks like a stone as soon as it gets wet. Under the Jones Act and court rulings about it, a vessel can be unseaworthy if any aspect of it makes it unfit for its purpose.
This could mean it carries cargo that is too heavy or imbalanced, lacks the right safety equipment or is not maintained properly. It could even mean there is a greasy spot on the deck, no warning sign about some danger, or not enough lighting to get up and down the stairs.
Finally, seaworthiness can also mean the crew is well trained to do their job and use safety features, and they can get enough sleep. The pilot also has not been drinking or looking at their phone or listening to music instead of watching where they are going.