Tugboat Accidents

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Tugboat crews are some of the busiest working in the maritime industry. The tugs they operate may be smaller than the vessels they tow, but the role that they play are as varied as they are essential. Whether the tugboats are towing larger ships, providing rescue services, or participating in construction projects, the crew on small tugboats keep the marine industry safe and productive. Though tugs are small in scale, they use many of the same heavy equipment and complicated machinery as their larger counterparts, all compressed into a much smaller space.

As a result, tugboat accidents may be even more dangerous than other high seas maritime accidents. This article provides information if you have been injured in an accident on a tugboat:

  • General Tugboat Accident Information
  • Steps to Take When Injured on a Tugboat
  • Common Tug Boat Accidents
  • Types of Tug Boat Accident Injuries

Tugboat Accidents and Crashes

Tugboats serve many purposes on the high seas. They may be used to push or tow larger vessels (such as cruise ships and container vessels) through a crowded harbor or a narrow channel. For large boats that cannot move themselves, such as barges or oil rigs, tugboats serve as their only means of changing position.

If a ship becomes disabled, tugboats rush to the site to help prevent an emergency, whether it be to fight an onboard fire or move the ship out of harm’s way. In polar environments, tugboats perform as icebreakers to break up the frozen surface water so that bigger ships can move.

With all these duties to perform, tugboats workers must be hardworking, skilled and prepared with a wide variety of equipment. Working on a tugboat involves daily use of onboard tools such as heavy-duty winches and high-tension cables that can easily snap.

The small size of the tugboat makes it much more vulnerable to the elements than a larger ship. While the decks of all vessels will become slippery in rough weather, a tugboat’s deck is uniquely treacherous as the wet surface bucks and bobs underneath the feet of workers. Combine those dangerous footing conditions with the previously mentioned equipment, and you have a setting ripe for the worst tugboat injuries and accidents.

In addition to all of this, tugboats endure a constant risk of colliding with other larger ships. Imagine the result of a crash between a golf cart and a bus, and you get a general idea of how a tugboat collision with another ship is likely to end. If a larger ship fails to see a tugboat in its path and the smaller boat cannot outpace it, the tugboat crew faces disaster on the high seas.

Steps to Take When Injured on a Tugboat

If you are injured as a result of a tugboat accident caused by negligence or unseaworthy working conditions, you should know that you have a legal right to financial compensation.

Learn about Maintenance and Cure. The information provided in this link provides answers to questions about what your rights to financial compensation, including attorney’s fees.

Compensation may play a vital role in your recovery, as it provides for the costs of medical exams and treatment, physical rehabilitation, and the wages you lose by not being able to work during your recovery.

For more information about tugboat accidents and injuries, read on.

If you are seeking legal advice about your injury, contact our Houston maritime law firm.

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Common Tugboat Accidents

Tugboats are some of the busiest working in the maritime industry, and the boat’s confined area causes smaller incidents to have bigger repercussions. The small size of a tugboat crew means fewer people to respond in case of an emergency – tugboat workers should make sure to report and document injuries at the time they occur. If you need to file a Jones Act claim, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff.


Not all tugboat collisions are the result of a tugboat coming into contact with another ship. Tugboats may collide with the bridge pilings, pier columns, docks or even other tugboats.

The consequences of a tugboat collision are very serious for everyone in the crew. Depending on the impact, a collision may provoke a chain reaction that breaks tugboat equipment that then causes injury to crew members. A collision may cause crew members to injure themselves or even throw them overboard. In this situation, because crew are not required by law to wear life jackets while on a ship, they run a great risk of drowning as the result of a collision.


Tugboats, like other vessels, are required by law to have a nonskid surface installed on their deck to maintain the safety of their crew. However, even the best nonskid surface cannot fully protect against precarious footing during bad weather.

It is up to the captain of the tugboat to maintain safety on deck as best he can. This means promptly cleaning up any spills on deck, keeping equipment properly stowed, and replacing the nonskid surface when it becomes worn down. Without these precautions, the deck of a tugboat is ready for disaster. Even a minor slip-and-fall accident can leave tugboat workers with injuries as serious as broken bones, spinal cord injuries or brain trauma.

Mechanical Malfunctions

Hawser lines are some of the most basic equipment aboard a tugboat. These lines are what a crew will use to tow or secure a larger vessel. These lines are made of thick cable that is designed to withstand tremendous pressure.

Over time, however, hawser lines will break down. This is known as becoming “parted,” and tugboat workers know all too well the potential of parted hawser lines to snap under high stress. There is even a word for the area within reach of a broken hawser line—tugboat workers call it the “snap-back” zone. Tugboat snap-back injuries are some of the most serious ways to get hurt on a tugboat.

This is just one example of how defective equipment may cause an accident on a tugboat. But tugboat accidents also occur if the boat’s own mechanisms are not sound. A tugboat built primarily for towing will have two or three diesel engines, all of which are needed to produce the thrust required to move a heavily loaded barge or an enormous oil rig. If one of these engines fails, or if a fire breaks out within the engine, the consequences can be serious and even deadly for the tugboat crew.

Onboard Hazards

Some of the hazards that lead to tugboat injury are environmental factors that cannot be avoided, such as wet, slick surfaces or heavy, dangerous equipment.

However, there are many accidents on tugboats that ultimately point to negligence on the part of the captain or other crew members. If the tugboat is not outfitted properly with working safety equipment (such as nonskid deck surfaces or firefighting equipment) or if crew members receive inadequate training in using the tugboat’s machinery or in proper emergency responses, there is a much higher likelihood of tugboat injury.


Needless to say, capsizing may be the most serious variety of tugboat accident. When a tugboat capsizes, it jeopardizes the lives of the entire crew, especially if the seas are rough.

A tugboat may capsize because of many different factors. Rough weather may overcome the tugboat, a choppy sea may flood the boat, or a mechanical failure in the boat may cause it to spring a leak. In addition, tugboats are vulnerable to “girting,” or being pulled downward into the water by the force of the boat they are trying to tow.

The most preventable cause of capsizing is a tugboat collision. If a tugboat is not properly manned, it may collide with a larger ship. When this happens, serious damage to the hull of the tugboat may cause it to leak or even overturn.

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Tugboat Injuries

Maritime injuries sustained aboard a tugboat can be as common as a slip and fall due to a slippery deck or unique to maritime industry work such as being injured as a result of a line injury. The conditions under which tugboat injury takes place are likely to intensify even small things such as pulled muscles or a sudden fall.

Common tugboat injuries include:

  • Bone fractures or dislocation
  • Sprains
  • Slip and fall
  • Pinch point injury
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Herniated disks
  • Chemical or fire burns
  • Drowning
  • Wrongful death

Any injury that happens on a sea vessel is difficult to manage. You may need additional time and resources in order to recover properly so you can continue to work. In those cases, you should consider your options of attaining your rights to recovery by filing a claim.


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