Company Chartering Ship Silenced Whistleblower


On March 26, before the sun rose above the Patapsco River, a container ship named Dali that was en route to Colombo, Sri Lanka, crashed into a support pillar of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. The collision triggered the collapse of the 1.6 mile long structure, sending huge swaths of it into the river’s dark waters. By evening, six construction workers who had been in the middle of the bridge’s span were presumed dead.

The company that chartered the ship, Maersk Line Limited, has since come under scrutiny following the tragedy. Hours after the news broke, The Lever reported that eight months prior, the Labor Department sanctioned the cargo giant for taking action against a sailor who previously reported unsafe working conditions while aboard a Maersk-operated boat.

The seaman had been a chief mate on the Safmarine Mafadi, a Maersk-operated vessel, and reported several issues on board including unrepaired leaks, unpermitted alcohol consumption onboard, inoperable lifeboats, and faulty emergency fire suppression equipment. He had been disciplined for not properly maintaining the logbook and failing to properly follow orders, before he was ultimately fired by the company. He later disputed these allegations and said they were in “retaliation for reporting alcohol consumption on board the vessel.”

The department found that Maersk had “a policy that requires employees to first report their concerns to [Maersk]… prior to reporting it to the [Coast Guard] or other authorities.” Federal officials said there was “reasonable cause to believe” that the company’s policy violated the 1984 Seaman’s Protection Act, a statute that prohibits an employer from retaliating against maritime workers who report unsafe work conditions.

The department called the policy “repugnant to the Act,” and in its order wrote that it “creates a chilling effect because it dissuades employees from reporting any safety concerns directly” to the U.S. Coast Guard and other authorities.

“[Maersk’s] Vice President of Labor Relations, admits that this Reporting Policy requires seamen to report safety concerns to the company and allow it time to abate the conditions before reporting to the [Coast Guard] or other regulatory agencies,” the report stated.

Maersk was ordered by federal officials to pay the employee over $700,000 in damages and back wages, and to reinstate him. The shipping conglomerate was also instructed to revise its policy to “not prohibit seamen from contacting the USCG or other federal, state or local regulatory agencies before first notifying the company.”

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“Federal law protects a seaman’s right to report safety concerns to federal regulatory agencies, a fact every maritime industry employer and vessel owner must know,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Eric S. Harbin in Dallas. “Failure to recognize these rights can instill a culture of intimidation that could lead to disastrous or deadly consequences.”

After news of the bridge collapse broke, USA Today found that the Maersk-chartered ship was involved in at least one prior accident before it crashed into the Baltimore bridge and in 2016, the Dali struck a loading pier made of stone while leaving a port in Antwerp. The collision damaged the ship’s stern, and an investigation determined the ship’s master and pilot was to blame for the mistake, per the outlet. No injuries were reported from the Belgium incident; the ship required repair and an inspection before being returned to service.



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