Working on the open seas presents some unique challenges, and one of the most significant can be the risk of hypothermia.
Hypothermia is the term for a condition when someone’s body loses heat faster than it can produce it from internal thermal processes, which leads to a critically low core body temperature.
What can hypothermia cause?
Mild hypothermia may cause shivering, an increased heart rate and rapid breathing. All of those are the body’s attempts to increase its metabolic activity and generate more heat.
Moderate hypothermia, where the victim’s core body temp drops below 95 degrees, causes difficulty thinking, problems speaking, labored movements and problems with muscle coordination.
Once severe hypothermia sets in and someone’s body temperature drops below 90 degrees, they may quickly start to lose their awareness of the situation and their pulse will fade. Once their body temperature goes below 82 degrees, they will quickly fall unconscious and can suffer cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, organ damage and death.
How fast can hypothermia set in?
It’s important to remember that water conducts heat away from a body about 25 times faster than air does, which means hypothermia can set in very quickly if a seaman falls overboard – even in relatively warm water.
When the water is 70 degrees or more, someone can stay conscious between two and 12 hours (depending on their overall health and level of fitness), but if the water is just 50 to 60 degrees, they would likely become unconscious within one to seven hours. If the water is cold (40 degrees or less), they may only have minutes before exhaustion, unconsciousness and permanent damage set in.
The maritime environment is characterized by cold temperatures, strong winds and water exposure – all of which can contribute to the problem of hypothermia. Anyone who is a victim of this condition needs immediate medical intervention.
If you’ve been injured in a maritime accident due to hypothermia or your loved one is hurt, it can also help to learn more about your right to benefits under maritime law and the Jones Act.