Just as the FRSA does on the railroad, the Seaman’s Protection Act (SPA) protects workers in the maritime shipping industry who report safety hazards. But there are only a handful of SPA whistleblower cases. Why the dearth of such cases?

The answer lies in the culture of the maritime industry, and in particular carrier policies prohibiting seamen from reporting safety concerns directly to the U.S. Coast Guard. This was the policy present in the leading SPA case, Loftus v. Horizon Lines (here is the Loftus ALJ Decision, and here is the ARB Decision). The expert trial testimony in Loftus confirmed it is “standard business practice” in the maritime industry for carriers to have in place corporate policies prohibiting seamen from reporting safety concerns directly to the USCG. And when employees such as Captain Loftus violate such policies by contacting the Coast Guard anyway, they are fired, sending a profoundly chilling effect throughout the ranks. So no wonder there are so few SPA whistleblower cases.

But now, in a landmark development, the Department of Labor’s OSHA Whistleblower Directorate has put the merchant marine industry on notice that such policies must be scrapped. And OSHA is doing so with the full support of the United States Coast Guard.

OSHA found that Maersk Line Limited–one of the world’s largest providers of marine cargo services–illegally suspended and terminated a seaman who reported safety concerns directly to the U.S. Coast Guard. OSHA ordered Maersk to pay the seaman over $700,000 in make whole damages, and to reinstate and promote him. And more importantly, OSHA ordered Maersk to drop its policy prohibiting seamen from directly contacting the U.S. Coast Guard. OSHA found such a policy is an egregious violation of the SPA whose chilling effect calls for $250,000 in punitive damages, the maximum amount. OSHA ordered Maersk to notify all its seamen of the revised policy and to post the following Notice in a conspicuous place in all its facilities:

OSHA has ordered your employer to change its policy that previously required you to report regulatory issues to your employer prior to reporting to outside agencies, such as the U.S. Coast Guard. The new policy removes any requirement that you report regulatory issues internally before you contact outside agencies.

This is a sea change in the maritime industry. Seamen no longer need to be afraid of going directly to the U.S. Coast Guard or ABS with safety concerns. Here is the full Merit Finding against Maersk. For more on the Seaman’s Protection Act and similar statutes, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.