Ebola Offshore

Scholarship created for students with various learning disorders
November 5, 2014
Nicholls fills 2 high-level positions
November 5, 2014
Scholarship created for students with various learning disorders
November 5, 2014
Nicholls fills 2 high-level positions
November 5, 2014

As global health workers struggle to contain deadly epidemics of Ebola virus on the African continent, local oilfield companies, their workers and agencies that govern them are keeping a close watch as well.

No Ebola cases involving local workers assigned to West Africa have been reported to date. But risks to worker health, economic costs for companies and potential liability pitfalls are all reasons for concern, company representatives, attorneys and government officials acknowledge.

West African nations are among the places where vessels, rigs and labor from some local oilfield service companies are utilized for support of oil and gas exploration.

Currently, the nations in the region listed as epidemic locations by the World Health Organization are Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Some international companies have suspended or delayed operations in or off Liberia. What impact that may have on local companies in terms of contracts or jobs has yet to register with Bayou Region business leaders. But they acknowledge that over time, it might.


A handful of workers for local companies interviewed last week said they have experienced heightened scrutiny while working at African ports.

“Every day on the boat they took our temperature,” said a Lafourche Parish worker recently returned from Nigeria. “There were signs all over that if you feel sick or have bleeding to tell a medic.”

The worker asked not to be identified by name or company because he is not authorized to speak with the news media. He said that on the boat he was assigned to there were workers from several nations including Sierra Leone.

Local firms generally ignored requests for information about their West African operations last week, or offered terse responses noting they are not working in the nations listed as experiencing Ebola epidemics.

Interviews with federal officials and other research have indicated that U.S. maritime operations – particularly those operating in West Africa – have an elevated cause for vigilance.

“Timely reporting of suspected (Ebola virus) incidents is paramount,” a Coast Guard directive dated Oct. 22 reads. “Vessel representatives are reminded that (federal law) requires the owner, agent, master, operator, or person in charge of a vessel to immediately notify the nearest Coast Guard sector whenever there is a hazardous condition aboard the vessel. An ill person on board, especially one displaying the symptoms listed above, may constitute a hazardous condition and should be reported. Facilities that encounter similar conditions are strongly recommended to report this to the Coast Guard.”


The Coast Guard will be checking ship records to determine whether any of a vessel’s last five port calls were in the three nations listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the directive states.

Chett Chiasson, the director of Port Fourchon, said officials from the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and other agencies held a meeting with his key staff members two weeks ago.

“They gave directives,” Chiasson said, noting that federal, state and local officials were in attendance. “They were saying, ‘Here is what we are going to do, here is what will happen, if you have a vessel coming in and somebody is sick.’ Coast Guard would be immediately on the ground if an area needed to be marked off.”

Vessels from Europe and sometimes from the Caribbean are among those that sometimes come in to Fourchon, the port director said.

Some local companies do have vessels off the African coast, he said, but they generally remain in place. Seamen generally travel by air to man boats and rigs and for their returns. A vessel returning from West Africa, he said, is always a possibility although remote.

Attorneys say that for some companies, particularly those operating ships or other vessels in West Africa covered under the Jones Act, the potential for liability in the event of a crewmember taking sick could be serious.

How serious and under what circumstances is still an open question.

“There may not be definitive answers until the courts are faced with these issues and decide on them,” said Houma attorney Mike Samanie, whose practice includes maritime litigation. “The Jones Act and the general maritime law are unique in that they evolve constantly, keeping maritime lawyers always debating.”


The Jones Act is a set of federal laws governing conduct of vessels in “coastwise trade,” that is, port-to-port in U.S. waters. But it also governs the overall relationship between ship owners and crew, including liability for injury.

“Theoretically, it certainly could if a crewmember were exposed as a result of failure to take proper precautions, or place them in a situation or a location where they know this is a real issue. It could have some potential,” said another attorney who handles maritime cases, Duke Williams.

Samanie noted that maritime law and the Jones Act place “a heavy burden on vessel owners to assure that vessels are seaworthy and that the employees or seamen are provided a safe place to perform their duties.”

In Samanie’s opinion that would likely include protecting seamen from exposure from citizens of African nations who board vessels or rigs, who may have had direct contact, knowingly or unknowingly, with infected people.

“One could foresee the need to medically screen all workers before contact with members of the crew,” he said. “The need for proper training of the crews as to how to protect themselves would be another aspect of liability if vessel owners fail to do so. An inadequately trained crew could very well render a vessel unseaworthy under the general maritime law.”


Big oil companies – among those which employ local businesses – have acknowledged some effects from the African crisis, such as changes in scheduling due to travel bans.

Conoco-Phillips conducts operations in nearby Angola, which has no travel bans and is not listed by the CDC.

A company spokesman said Conoco is monitoring the situation daily “to ensure we take proper steps to protect our employees that support our Angola operations.”

ExxonMobil, meanwhile, has suspended its planned work at Block 13, an exploration site off the Liberian coast, spokesman Patrick McGinn said.

“We have restricted non-essential travel to Liberia,” he said. “Safety, health and logistical issues may impact ExxonMobil’s first exploration well offshore Liberia. Safety is our top priority. Travel restrictions into and within the country have limited our ability to progress plans for drilling. We remain committed to exploring Block 13 when conditions in Liberia improve. We share the Liberian government’s commitment to safety as well as its focus on stopping the spread of Ebola and caring for the affected population.”

Toward that end, McGinn noted, ExxonMobil has contributed $150,000 to the Liberian chapter of the International Red Cross and $75,000 to Plan International to support Ebola programs in Liberia.

“We also contributed $250,000 for Ebola efforts in Nigeria,” he said.


Although spared an epidemic at this point, Nigeria suffered Ebola cases in August. Its port of Lagos is essential to oil operations in the West African region. Industry bloggers have said that uncontrolled Ebola in Nigeria would be devastating to the industry.

Shell companies in Nigeria began donations in August, gifting Ebola emergency operations centers in Lagos and Port Harcourt with ambulances, trucks and fuel supplies.

The company has also established safety precautions for employees that include infra-red thermal scanning for body temperature checks at the entrances of Shell premises, provision of hand sanitizers and staff awareness sessions.

“Company staff are sharing awareness of prevention measures with family members, contractors and visitors,” a statement from the company reads.

Despite the precautions, if a U.S. crewmember or worker on a vessel took ill with Ebola, attorneys say questions about treatment would be among those requiring definitive answers. Even if a vessel was not U.S.-flagged, Samanie said, it is possible that elements of U.S. law could still attach.

He noted that under general maritime law a seaman is entitled to “maintenance and cure if he becomes ill while furthering the mission of the vessel he is assigned to.”

That, he said, raises an interesting, if thorny, question.

“How does the employer provide cure – medical care – to a seaman that contracts Ebola while in West Africa?” Samanie said. “Can he provide medical care in West Arica, or does he have an obligation to provide medical care in the U.S.? My opinion would be that the employee would have to provide ‘reasonable care;’ I would expect the courts would define reasonable care by U.S. standards, which would require immediate care in the U.S., not West Africa.”


Another question that looms is whether oil industry employees at home, fearing Ebola exposure, could turn down assignments.

Houma attorney Brian Marceaux said that since Louisiana is a right-to-work state, employees would likely not have a claim if such a refusal resulted in dismissal.

Someone fired for such a refusal would likely find remedy in federal laws either, attorneys said.

“In my opinion there is no obligation to guarantee employment to a seaman under either the Jones Act or the maritime law,” Samanie said. “I do not expect Louisiana law would be applicable at all under the general maritime law. However, it should be pointed out that if Louisiana law applied an employer could still discharge the employee, unless there is a specific contract of employment in place.”

US Navy Lt. Jose Garcia tests patient samples for Ebola virus at a Navy mobile testing lab on Bushrod Island, Liberia. The lab is one of two in use.