The Short Leash
ILLUSTRATION:U.S.Navy Hospital Training Manual
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One of the arguments that towing vessel management made in the early 1970s when they insisted that the Coast Guard not impose the traditional Master, Mate, and Pilot officer licensing regime on diesel towing vessels after
series of horrific accidents that impelled Congress to mandate the examination and licensing of towboat “operators”
in 1972. This was called the “short leash argument.” Towing company owners and managers argued that inland,
harbor, and coastwise towing vessels were given so much support from their shore side offices and available
contract service providers that more extensive knowledge of navigation, stability, national shipping laws and
regulations, and emergency medical practices common for most traditional Merchant Marine licensed officers were
not really necessary in the towing industry.
Much the same argument was put forward by the new offshore mineral
and oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time.
Management would change their tune years later when they realized that their “short leash” left management
holding the bag for liability in an accident because the law, as written, left them with a choice; they could either
hire a licensed Master and Pilot or one of the newly licensed towing vessel “operators.” Unfortunately for
management, they nearly always chose the lower-paid “operator” to maximize their profits.
Management, in the Congressional Record, described the relative lack of training for these “operators” and their
successful management of that risk by using the “short leash” to keep on top of things! When an unfortunate series
of major accidents started to happen from the 1993 Sunset Limited accident forward, management found itself
unable to take advantage of the “limitation of liability” provision in maritime law that allowed a ship owner to
avoid liability beyond the salvage value of his ship and its cargo in the wake of an accident caused by factors
beyond his “privity and knowledge.” By using licensed “operators,” the owners could no longer argue that they
had hired “licensed professionals” to run their vessels and that, as owners, they had no “privity and knowledge” of
any navigational or operational professional shortcomings their Captains may have had.
Needless to say following
several spectacular and expensive accidents, the easy-to-obtain “operator” class of license was regulated out of
existence and started to disappear between 2001 and 2006. Holders of the old “Operator” licenses were
“grandfathered” as Masters, Mates, or Pilots of towing vessels with licenses that became increasingly restricted to
domestic routes. Deckhands hopeful of obtaining a new towing license came up against a one-year apprenticeship
requirement and seriously enhanced experience, training, and professional examination requirements.
Yet even today, the vessel owners and their operating companies still argue the “short leash” as if the short leash
still existed when denying their officers and crewmembers first class emergency medical response on board
equipment and training.
Meet Capt. John LoCicero.
He Made His Own Splint with a Rolled Newspaper and Duct Tape;
Years After His Injury, He Cannot Use His Right Hand
[Source: Reported by Captain John LoCicero in several interviews.]
When Captain John LoCicero was an active member of our Association, he told us that ten years ago, he never
would have considered joining a mariner's association like ours, or a labor union. Back then, he believed that his
employer cared about him as a person and would take care of him if he was hurt on the job. He now admits that his
trust was misplaced and wants to tell his story to other mariners so they may avoid the same bitter experience.
A mariner needs to understand that there are two sides to many important health, safety, and welfare issues.
Although your boss may be a fine and honorable person you respect and enjoy working for, he is your employer
and his interests and concerns may not always coincide with yours. Although you owe him your loyalty as an
employee, there are times when you must put your interests and those of your family first and foremost.
In 1993, John was serving as relief captain on an uninspected towing vessel working on the Gulf Intracoastal
Waterway pushing tank barges between Louisiana and Texas. He was employed by the Frazier Towing Company,
a small mom-and-pop towing operation based in southeast Louisiana. On the voyage when he was injured, he was
working as Pilot under the direction of the son of the company's owner who served as the vessel's captain.
The tow consisted of one tank barge owned by Hollywood Marine – a customer of Frazier Towing Company.
While underway during a voyage in 1994, John tripped on the deck and injured his right wrist and arm and was
in severe pain. The boat's Captain called on Hollywood Marine for assistance. A Hollywood employee drove John
to a local Houston-area hospital where John's injured arm was examined. He was told his wrist was broken but that
the hospital's orthopedic specialist was not there to set it. Consequently, John was brought back to the towboat
even though he asked to be taken to another hospital for immediate emergency treatment. He was told that medical
treatment was the responsibility of his employer, the Frazier Towing Company, and not up to Hollywood Marine,
owner of the barge.
On returning to the boat, John was in severe pain and told the Captain that he thought he was going into shock.
Since the towboat was now tied to the dock at the refinery, the Captain called the refinery's emergency medical
technician (EMT) who arrived in an ambulance but did not even have a splint to immobilize the fracture. John
finally immobilized it himself by wrapping a newspaper around it and using duct tape to secure it. Since he could
not work because of the pain, he asked to be relieved.
Left to Suffer
Twenty-four hours later, John arrived by company carryall at Frazier Towing Company's parking lot on the bayou in
southeast Louisiana where he was dropped off at his parked car and left to fend for himself. He had received no
additional medical treatment and was still in severe pain. John put it this way: "I have hurt myself in the past, but I never
had pain like that in my life. I hurt so damn bad I can't even begin to tell anyone the pain I felt."
John was left with no alternative but to drive his car with one arm immobilized about 25 miles up the bayou to
Raceland and then on to his home forty miles further on in Metairie. He mmediately called the company office
and, being a Saturday, left a message for the Port Captain to call him with further instructions for medical care.
No Immediate Company Concern
On Sunday, the port captain never bothered to return his call. So, bright and early on Monday, John called the
office and spoke to the secretary. The secretary asked him why he was still walking around-with a broken arm.
John replied that the hospitals asked embarrassing questions about his medical coverage he could not answer and,
specifically, who was responsible for paying the bill. Eventually, the office appeared to settle the matter and sent
him to a doctor later in the day. The doctor gave him pain medicine, properly immobilized the arm, and because
the doctor was busy, gave him an appointment to come back in a week to get it set.
When John returned, he learned that his arm had suffered severe nerve damage and that it would require a major
operation using a nerve taken from his leg. The doctor scheduled the operation for the next day. However, when
John arrived for the operation, he was told that the company did not have the funds to pay for it and that it could not
be performed. Shortly thereafter, the company stopped paying his maintenance and cure. Four-and-a-half months
later, they were still talking about surgery but had not yet performed it.
No Surgery and Inadequate Settlement
John then hired an attorney who was only able to extract a small and unsatisfactory settlement from the
company. John can no longer work as a mariner. Eighteen years later, John has no use of his right hand
whatsoever and lives on small government disability payments.
Some Thoughts for Fellow Mariners
John's advice to his fellow mariners is this: "Watch your step. Be careful whom you work for. Be sure these
people can and will take care of you if you are hurt. Don't blindly accept what these companies tell you, because
they are all born liars. They'll tell you what you want to hear."
John asks our mariners consider these points:
● Are you working for a reputable employer that provides you and your family with adequate medical and disability
● Has your employer ever cheated mariners that you know out of legitimate "maintenance and cure" payments?
● What type of medical coverage do you have today and how would it cover you under the same circumstances that
he faced in a distant city or even at home?
● Have you read the fine-print of your medical policy or do you need it explained to you?
● Do you carry the necessary credentials that will give you entry to an emergency room?
● Does your health coverage include transportation by ambulance if it is medically necessary?
● How soon will you be covered if you go to work for a new employer? If you have a 60 or 90 day waiting period,
how do you plan to protect yourself against possible medical bills that could bankrupt you?
● If you must sue your employer, does he carry enough insurance to pay you for your medical care, your time lost
from work, or for a disabling injury that lasts for the rest of your life? Would your employer fire you if you asked
these questions? If so, your relationship with your employer is fragile indeed.
In 1994, the Coast Guard determined that working on a towing vessel was nine times more dangerous than
working at an "average" job – even more dangerous than on a commercial fishing vessel.(1) With that in mind, do
you have a lawyer in mind that can represent your interests in the maritime environment? [(1)Refer to our Report
As a post-script, John left this thought: "I wish I could make our guys understand that it's not the same world
anymore. Small companies are being swallowed up by big companies. Soon, only two or three big companies will
be left, and the little guy will not have much of a choice anymore. One mistake and you just won't work on boats
again – plain and simple. We are looking at a sweat-shop situation if we don't stand up, pitch in, and get noticed."
The comment that “…You just won’t work on boats again” refers to the practice of lacklisting” or
NMA Report #R-210 that explains the elaborate details.]
“blackballing” – a unfair labor practice that continues to end many seagoing careers. Our Association urged
Congress to amend 46 U.S. Code §2114, Protection Against Discrimination which they did in 2010.(1) [(1)Refer to