Compensation for Injuries occurring on Offshore Wind Farms in Maryland

Maryland will soon be home to the country's largest offshore wind farms. Two approved projects will bring 500 foot tall wind turbines, unlimited supply of renewable energy, and thousands of jobs to Maryland. These wind farms are planned to be located within 24 miles offshore of Maryland's coastal areas. Once construction work begins on these two projects, there will be lots of work needed to survey the area, lay the cable and build the turbines--all of which is dangerous construction work that requires remedies in the event a worker is injured.

Most injuries are caused by the inherent dangers of the ocean, i.e., being swept overboard and drowning. The second cause of injury and/or death are falls from great heights. Other common injuries include impact injuries, explosions, crane collapses, falling objects and electric shock. All of these types of injuries are often serious and can be life-threatening.

Because these projects are in navigable waters, maritime personal injury law applies. If your injury occurred while exploring or constructing an offshore wind farm in the Atlantic, there are several federal maritime laws that could potentially impact you personal injury claim: the Jones Act, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the Longshore Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, and Death on the High Seas Act. Because wind farms offshore is a relatively new industry, determining the right law will be fundamental to your personal injury or wrongful death claim's success. At Gilman & Bedigian, we are prepared to put our maritime experience to work for you.

Offshore Wind Farm Development, Construction & Operation Phases

There are various stages for the development, construction and operation of offshore wind farms, and each will entail their own sets of workers. The stages include:

  • Installation. This has involves the installation of all the major components, including the foundation and transition piece, and the assembly of the wind turbines. This phase is when most of the heavy lifting of turbine components takes place and is the most personnel-intensive phase of an offshore wind farms developments.
  • Cable Installation & Electrical Substation. During this phase, each wind turbine is already set up. Special cable installation vessels and underwater cable installation equipment are used to connect the turbines and embed the electrical cable up to 2 meters below the seabed. Connections are also made from the offshore turbines to the central substation.
  • Commissioning of an Offshore Wind Farm. Once the turbines are assembled and all the cables are laid and connected, inspections take place to make sure everything is operational. Things to be assessed include turbine functionality and the electrical infrastructure. Tests are conducted before and after the connection to the grid. This phase can be particularly dangerous because the risk of electrical incidents is high.
  • Operations & Maintenance. Once the offshore wind farm is operations, it is almost always unmanned offshore with workers accessing it only to conduct routine inspections or perform maintenance and repairs. These regularly scheduled inspections require only smaller vessels, those without cranes or other hulky machinery; the only times the more specialized vessels will be used again is if a wind turbine requires a major, unscheduled repair or replacement.
  • Decommissioning. In the event the offshore wind farm is to shutdown, it will have to be decommissioned. Though this kind of work to date has not taken place either in the U.S. or abroad, the work is thought to be more dangerous than the installation and construction phases.

Common Occupations for Offshore Wind Farm Development, Construction & Operations

There are a great variety and number of occupations that are needed to complete the construction of offshore wind farms, but upon construction's completion, there are fewer occupations required to be filled to operate and maintain the offshore facilities. Regardless the degree of opportunity for occupations, many of these jobs place employees in harm's way due to the inherent dangers of the sea and the job duties of each occupation. Below are a list of some of the occupations that are necessary for construction and operations and that also expose workers to daily hazardous conditions.

Engineers

Engineers come in many different forms, from aerospace engineers to civil engineers to electrical or environmental engineers. They all have their place in the construction and operation of offshore wind farms. Engineers in the wind power industry work in laboratories, industrial plants or offshore platforms. They often supervise manufacturing processes and turbine installation. The nature of their work depends on their specialties.

Machinists

Machinists make precision metal and plastic pieces; they cut the pieces, especially pieces that automated machinery cannot make, using various complicated tools.

Assemblers

Assemblers put all the components together using both automated machines and manual labor to fasten materials together by hand. After assembling, they may use power tools to trim or cut or make adjustments to align pieces together. Assemblers are used in the production of turbine components. They manufacture the blades, which is very much a labor intensive activity.

Welders

Welders melt and fuse metal pieces together to form a permanent bond. This type of work can be very dangerous in an ocean setting. Divers are used, too, to dive deep into the water and weld pieces together underwater.

Quality Control Inspectors

Quality-control inspectors inspect parts to verify that they fit or are properly lubricated, among other tasks. There job is very important to wind turbine construction. Wind turbine components are so massive that it is important -- though time-consuming -- that quality-control inspectors examine and maintain regular, detailed reports on their inspections. The construction and manufacturing process is dependent on quality-control inspectors. They will travel onsite to examine the wind turbine components as they are put together.

Industrial Production Managers

Industrial production managers are onsite both on the factory floor and offshore. They coordinate the work to improve production processes.

Construction laborers

Construction laborers are the key to the construction of an offshore wind farms. Their jobs are also in constant threat of the dangers the open water poses. They prepare the site, including laying the cable deep in the water, and build the infrastructure.

Crane operators

Crane operators are vital to the entire maritime industry. They can be seen on docks or on ships. While building the offshore facilities, these cranes are used on ships and lift the bulky wind turbine pieces, stacking the tower segment first and then the blades.

Electricians

Electricians are also in a precarious situation on the open seas. Electrocution or electric shock are some of the more common causes of injuries or death. Electricians are needed to help transfer the energy from the turbine generator to the power grid. Electricians wire the turbine to connect it the electrical system to the power grid. To do so, they use numerous tools, including anything from screwdrivers to wire strippers and drills. Many electricians are also divers so that they can connect the cables underwater. Any underwater activity is especially dangerous.

Wind Techs

Wind techs maintain and perform complex repairs to wind turbines offshore. Once the wind turbines are constructed, wind techs may be on them on a daily basis, climbing up to inspect them. They report problems and fix known problems. They must perform daily maintenance work in the nacelle, the place where the gears and electronics are stored. Nacelles are very small spaces, so these wind techs have minimal space to work and may have to do so hunched over for long periods of time. Sometimes, wind techs work outside, on top of the nacelle, to replace instruments used to measure the speed and direction of the win. This location is particularly dangerous in the open seas and wind techs are vulnerable to high falls even though they wear harnesses.

Shipbuilders, Ship Repairers

To construct, maintain and operate the offshore wind turbines, specialized ships are required. Shipbuilders will be required initially, and ship repairers will be required throughout the process. The work can be dangerous because of the hulky equipment used and the threat of heavy cargo or supplies falling, or the risk of slips and falls, among other common accidents and injuries that take place building and repairing these kinds of vessels.

Seamen

Supply and service vessels are used to carry supplies and provide specialized services for the offshore wind farm industry. Seamen work on these boats performing various tasks.

Sources of Compensation for Injuries

The source and degree of your compensation depends on your position and where you are when an accident or incident happens and you sustain injuries because of it. In short, compensation can be provided through the Jones Act where negligence is necessary to be proven, or through workers' compensation through the Longshore Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) or one of its extensions.

The key differences between the Jones Act and the LHWCA are many, including but not limited to the following:

  • For compensation through the Jones Act, the injured “seaman” must prove fault or negligence on behalf of his or her employer or fellow crew member. Under the LHWCA, including its extensions: the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) and the Defense Base Act (DBA), fault is not required; you are compensated regardless.
  • For the Jones Act, there is no federal or state agency that oversees or manages the claims, and the claims must be filed and possibly litigated in a state or federal court. LHWCA claims, however, are managed by the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Workers' compensation benefits under the LHWCA and OCSLA were developed to provide medical care, income benefits and disability payments to injured employee, which in effect replaces the lost income the injured worker loses while recovering. Payments under the Jones Act have the potential to be much higher and more inclusive; it covers damages that include medical care, economic loss (e.g., past and future wages), loss of future earning capacity, fringe benefits, and sometimes it may cover pain and suffering, disfigurement, among other damages.

Some argue that most workers in the offshore wind farm industry could potentially seek damages under the OCSLA, but the OCSLA is specific to the exploration and extraction of minerals, and wind energy does not qualify. Congress has attempted to update the OCSLA accordingly, but has to date failed to do so. Most workers will file claims under with the Jones Act or maritime law, and in some case, under state personal injury law.

Qualifying to Compensation

Maritime law is very intricate and complex. Determining if you qualify for compensation under a specific law is key to recovering that compensation. Failure to choose the right law, or the law that benefits you most, will be to your detriment, which is why it is always important to consult with an experienced maritime personal injury attorney.

Qualifying under the Jones Act

To qualify for benefits under the Jones Act, you must qualify as a seaman in accordance with the definition provided by the Jones Act and subsequent precedent. Determining if you are a seaman under the Jones Act can be complicated because its meaning is not expressly defined.

Generally, a seaman is (1) a crew member who (2) works on a vessel in navigation, and (3) that work contributes to the purpose or mission of the vessel in navigation. "In navigation" is another qualifier, and to be "in navigation," the Bessel must: be afloat; in operation; in navigable waters; capable of moving. Because wind turbines are not permanently attached to the sea floor, but are "floating" structures, they qualify as vessels "in navigation."

In addition to the above qualifiers, the seaman, to be compensated under the Jones Act, must also spend a significant amount of his or her employment working aboard a water vessel; "significant" has been defined as 30% of employment time, but that number is not the rule but a guide.

From this definition, almost anyone working on a vessel that navigates the sea is a seaman. Specific to the offshore wind farms, most wind techs, welders, construction laborers, among others, who are working on the wind turbines out at sea will be covered by the Jones Act. In addition, workers on service and supply vessels will also likely qualify.

Qualifying under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act

According the the United States Department of Labor, you are covered under the LHWCA if you are an employee "in traditional maritime occupations such as longshore workers, ship-repairers, shipbuilders or ship-breakers, and harbor construction workers. The injuries must occur on the navigable waters of the United States in adjoining areas, including piers, docks, terminals, wharves, and those areas used in loading and unloading vessels. Non-maritime employees may also be covered if they perform their work on navigable water and their injuries occur there."

If you are a dock worker supporting the wind farm industry offshore by hauling and loading equipment and turbine pieces, then you can seek compensation under the LHWCA. During the construction phase of the offshore wind farms, there will be numerous employees working from the docs and harbor. Additional, specialized boats will be required, therefore, any shipbuilder, repairer, etc. will also qualify for compensation under the LHWCA.

Qualifying under General Maritime Law

To qualify under general maritime law, you can be either a seaman or a non-seaman. General maritime law is less specific than the Jones Act and helps offshore workers and seamen recover compensation for personal injuries. There is, however, one common law doctrine specific to seamen: maintenance and cure.

Maintenance and cure states that the employer of a vessel or offshore company is responsible and will be held accountable for the wellbeing of employees. If a worker is injured during the performance of his or her job duties, the company is responsible to pay medical and rehabilitation costs. Ship owners also have a duty to care for passengers, including doing whatever is necessary to prevent accidents and keep passengers safe.

Another common law doctrine is that of unseaworthiness. If a ship or vessel owner does not provide a vessel free from defects or with a safe environment so that workers can work free from harm or injury, then a worker can sue if injured. Passengers can also sue for unseaworthiness. This doctrine states that the owner of a vessel must keep the vessel maintained so that it is seaworthy, which includes providing a safe vessel equipped with all the proper equipment and crew members who understand and know how to perform their duties.

Sources of Compensation for Wrongful Death

If you lost a loved one to an offshore wind farm injury, you can seek death benefits through a wrongful death claim from the same source the decedent would have received compensation if he or she had only been injured. The primary sources include the Jones Act, maritime law and state personal injury law.

Comprehensive, Resourceful Offshore Injury Lawyers in Maryland

Because the offshore wind farm industry is so new, you need experienced maritime lawyers to help you ensure you are compensated for your injuries or loss. Our offshore injury lawyers understand the differences between and the complexities of federal maritime statutes. If you file a negligence claim or for workers' compensation, it is possible you may lose your right to file under another source. It is important before filing for any damages that you consult with an experienced offshore injury attorney who can review your case, your rights and ensure you file under the appropriate law.

Offshore wind farms can be lucrative work, but it is also work in some of the most hostile and dangerous conditions. If you or a loved one is injured during the course of your work, contact Gilman & Bedigian trial attorneys online or call our law office at (800) 529-6162 for a free consultation. And remember: you do not pay us until we help you secure a successful claim or lawsuit in your favor.

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If someone you are close to has been seriously injured or worse, you are naturally devastated not only by what has happened, but by the effect that the injury or loss has had on you and your family. At a time when you're vulnerable, traumatized and emotionally exhausted, you need a team that will support you through the often complex process that lies ahead.

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