River Barge Accidents: Common Injuries, and How to Get Compensation

Narrow stairs leading to the deck of a river barge

The St. Louis region has the second-largest total tonnage of goods passing through its river ports. That means heavy barge and commercial boat traffic. There is a high chance of river boat accidents—not in the form of collisions (although those happen on occasion)—but workplace accidents involving the men and women who work on them.

Working on a boat is different in many ways compared to having a job on land. Getting hurt on the job is different too. When your workplace is a navigable vessel, there are additional hazards and chances for injury. There is also a different way to get compensation for injuries.

Compensation For River Boat Injuries With The Jones Act

Injuries sustained by seamen (the term for any member of a boat’s crew) are covered by a 1920 federal mandate called The Jones Act. It allows seamen to sue their employers and the owner of the vessel for injuries arising from an unsafe work environment or negligence.

The Jones Act takes the place of normal worker’s compensation coverage that applies to workplace injuries on land. It compensates seamen for their medical expenses and living expenses while they heal from injuries (called care and maintenance), regardless of the cause of the injury or who was responsible. If negligence or a lack of safety precautions can be proven, it goes a step further allowing for additional compensation and even pain and suffering.

The burden of proof is fairly low with The Jones Act. Cases can be won by seamen if the employer is found to be even 1% to blame. 

River barge accidents in the waterways surrounding St. Louis can occur in bad weather or for other reasons that are no fault of the boat’s owner or the crew. The same is true for accidents on any navigable vessels on rivers, lakes, and oceans anywhere. Negligence, however, is usually the result of:

  • Inadequate training
  • Poorly maintained equipment
  • Failure to follow safety precautions

These lapses can be responsible for serious injuries or even death. People who are hurt because of them deserve full compensation for their injuries.

Slippery Surfaces and Falls

Man wearing work boots on the slippery deck of a river barge

With decks so close to the water’s surface, it is no surprise that barges are wet and slick. They may be oily from machinery too, so there is always a danger for slipping, tripping, and falling when onboard. Ladders, catwalks, and other elevated surfaces can pose a danger too.

Just as on land, a slip and fall accident can pose a number of dangers including cuts, sprains, broken bones, and even concussions or traumatic brain injuries.

Efforts must be made to keep the decks clean and orderly to prevent tripping hazards or slippery surfaces. Proper safety precautions are important too, such as requiring appropriate footwear.

Falling Overboard

Even with experienced seamen, there is a real danger of falling overboard. You are working on a moving vessel that is subject to wakes and currents. Not all areas of a barge deck will have a railing, so river barge accidents can result from falling into the water.

A worker’s heavy clothing and gear can pull them under and possibly under the boat. If not wearing a life vest, there is a risk of drowning. And the chances of suffering from hypothermia and frostbite increase as water temperatures decrease.

Life vests and floatation devices are essential. And every vessel should have working rescue equipment such as inflatable rafts and lighting should a water rescue be necessary, as well as training in “man overboard” emergency procedures.

Heavy Machinery and Equipment

As with many industrial jobs on land, working on a barge involves heavy equipment that moves cargo. Working with this type of machinery can be dangerous, especially if it breaks down or doesn’t work properly.

This type of work can result in a number of different types of injuries. Everything from minor back strain from heavy lifting to being hit, pinched, or crushed by a piece of equipment is possible. A worker might be at risk of a traumatic brain injury or concussion, losing a finger, toe, or limb, or even death.

A boat’s equipment must be well maintained for the safety of the crew. Safety equipment such as hard hats, gloves, and proper shoes are necessary too. Failure to provide or require such things will make a boat owner liable for injuries.

Confined and Enclosed Spaces

River barges and other vessels often have containers or other enclosed areas of the boat that workers routinely must enter. A lack of oxygen or exposure to harmful fumes such as carbon monoxide creates the opportunity for a river boat accident. The cargo of the boat might include toxic substances that could leak or spill.

Toxic chemicals are a danger, and so is a lack of ventilation. Seamen who are in a situation without adequate oxygen can suffer from hypoxia which starts as numbness or tingling and fatigue and can lead to brain damage or death.

To reduce these dangers, boats must have adequate ventilation and should be equipped with breathing apparatuses for workers who need to enter confined spaces to do their work.

Flammable Materials and Fire

Cabinet for flammable materials aboard a river barge

In addition to carrying flammable cargo, barges and other boats have a danger of fires starting with the machinery and fuel. River barge accidents involving fire can lead to burns and smoke inhalation suffered by the crew.

Not only should every effort be made to secure the boat from these dangers, but appropriate emergency equipment is necessary. Alarms and alerts, sprinkler systems, and fire extinguishers are all essential equipment.

Barge Owners Have are Responsible for Their Crew

It is in a commercial vessel owner’s best interest to ensure their boats are safe. OSHA has very strict guidelines about the equipment and training that is necessary to do so. Despite these requirements, river barge accidents still happen.

Some mishaps are unavoidable and blameless. But in other cases, a boat’s owner, captain, or crew might be careless, untrained, or trying to cut corners. This negligence can cause serious injuries or death.

When injuries occur, if the employer and owner have failed to uphold safety standards, they are both liable. Because of The Jones Act, they can be held responsible for payment of damages to the seaman, or to their surviving heirs.

If you are a seaman who has been hurt in a river barge accident in the St. Louis area, contact Hipskind & McAninch. We will review your case and get you full and fair compensation for your injuries under the Jones Act.


River Barge Accidents


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