Small and midsize business owners, take heed of the recent case involving Maersk Line Limited, a prominent provider of marine cargo services. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted a whistleblower investigation, which revealed that the company illegally suspended and terminated a seaman after the seaman reported several safety concerns about a company vessel to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Maersk Line Limited Violates Federal Seaman’s Protection Act
According to OSHA’s findings, Maersk Line’s actions violated the federal Seaman’s Protection Act, a law that safeguards the rights of seamen on US-registered vessels or vessels owned by US citizens. Seamen have the right to report safety concerns or violations of maritime laws to federal regulatory agencies, such as the US Coast Guard, without having to adhere to any company policies requiring them to report first to the company.
As a consequence of its wrongful actions, OSHA ordered Maersk Line to reinstate the seaman and pay a substantial sum of more than $700,000, which includes back wages, interest, compensatory damages, and punitive damages. Additionally, the company must revise its policies to allow seamen to contact regulatory agencies directly before notifying the company, ensuring their right to report safety concerns is protected.
The case serves as a crucial reminder to all businesses operating in the maritime industry of the importance of recognizing and respecting the rights of their employees, especially when it comes to reporting safety concerns. Failing to acknowledge and uphold these rights can create a culture of intimidation, which may lead to catastrophic or fatal consequences.
The seaman in question reported several critical safety concerns about the vessel Safmarine Mafadi, a 50,000-ton container ship. These concerns included malfunctioning lifeboat release gear, unsupervised trainees on ship watch leading to an oil spill, alcohol possession and possible consumption by crew members onboard, leaks and flooding in cargo holds, and the need for repair and replacement of deck sockets.
Maersk’s response to the seaman’s report was to suspend them in December 2020 and later terminate their employment in March 2021 for making the complaint without notifying the company first.
In a joint statement, OSHA Regional Administrator Eric S. Harbin and Rear Admiral Wayne Arguin, Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy for the U.S. Coast Guard, emphasized the importance of upholding whistleblower protections and fostering an open and transparent safety culture within the maritime industry. They encouraged all employers within the maritime domain to support and abide by these protections to ensure the safety of mariners and the public.
Business owners, regardless of their industry, should take this case as a cautionary tale about the severe consequences of retaliating against employees who report safety concerns or violations. Employers have a legal and ethical responsibility to provide a safe work environment and protect their workers’ rights. Failure to do so can result in hefty penalties, damage to the company’s reputation, and most importantly, jeopardize the well-being of their employees.
To avoid such pitfalls, it is crucial for business owners to educate themselves about employment laws, including whistleblower protections, and implement comprehensive policies that encourage employees to report safety concerns without fear of retaliation. Emphasizing a culture of safety and compliance will not only protect employees but also contribute to the long-term success and sustainability of the business.