Minimal safety training increases risk to fishermen

Fishermen’s Wall of Remembrance at the Plymouth Barbican

Fishermen’s Wall of Remembrance at the Plymouth Barbican

UK authority Seafish has expressed grave concerns that not enough fully trained new blood is entering an industry with a fatality at work record 30 times greater than any other UK occupation, reports Bryan Gibson.

All new UK fishing industry trainees are legally required to complete four training courses specified by the Marine Conservation Association (MCA). The first course must be completed before joining a fishing vessel, concentrating on first aid and basic safety. The remaining three courses require completion within the following three months. 

Across the Pond, where minimally enforced fishing safety regulation is concerned, the USA fares little better than the UK where 165 fishermen died along the North East Coast between 2000-2009.

The US Coast Guard regulates fishing vessels but has no authority to inspect entire boats, according to a former staff member of the US House of Representatives who helped write the safety laws. The US Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 requires safety equipment aboard fishing vessels to be inspected every two years.

Bad habits
Seafish considers that such a minimal level of basic training substantially increases the danger of the ‘fishermen of tomorrow’ picking-up bad habits due to casually observed safety standards and poorly maintained equipment, as well as the common misconception that “nothing is ever going to happen to me”.

New deckhands acquire most of their learning on the job and must learn fast. Many a hard-bitten time-served trawler skipper would refuse to accept ‘apprenticeship’ any other way, but when it comes to single-handed fishing, usually within the under 10 metre fleet, failure to observe the most minor safety measure can end in catastrophe; usually with no rescuer close-by and often onboard a vessel with a damaged hull and a poor maintenance history.

A Newquay (Cornwall, UK) under 10 metre lobsterman owes his life to the capacity of his lungs and the good training and quick thinking of his young deckhand, when the line of pots he was shooting became entangled around his legs. The skipper descended more than 20 metres before his colleague could start the winch to pull him back up, miraculously still alive.       

The average age of the UK’s under 10 metre skipper  is currently around 60, so if commercial fishing is to continue to survive, several issues are in need of closer consideration other than fishing quotas and permitted days at sea.

According to a Freedom of Information request to the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), between 1991 and 2015, 690 persons were reported as having unintentionally fallen into the water, which resulted in 362 deaths.

PFDs
Seafish, fully supported by theMAIB, has been highlighting what it considers is the vital importance of wearing personal flotation devices while working on deck.

Liaising closely with the fishing industry, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, RNLI and the Fishermen's Mission, the Sea You Home Safe campaign is backing an initiative to ensure that every commercial fisherman in the UK is provided with a Personal Flotation Device (PFD).

“Personal flotation is useless unless worn” says Seafish, and “fishermen are required to attend a short workshop to convince them of the need to wear a PFD and to explain how it should be worn, checked and maintained. Applicants must be qualified to work on a commercial boat in the UK and we require production of a mandatory safety certificate.”

“Fisherman-friendly PFDs are under constant development by Irish marine safety equipment specialists, Mullion, with support from the only specialised fishing industry training school in UK. Whitby Fishing School, has been developing a new lightweight and compact design for a personal buoyancy aid designed to be fisherman-friendly. The team at Mullion are keen to emphasise they are always pleased to receive feedback to continue making improvements.”

If you are a skipper on a UK-registered commercial fishing vessel and wish to apply for free personal flotation devices for you and your crew, contact training@seafish.co.uk.

Entanglement
Fishermen around the world are still dying in the most horrendous circumstances without falling overboard, due to straps or loose clothing becoming entangled around unprotected deck winches and other powerful machinery. Any additional externally worn buoyancy jacket attached to the torso by straps and buckles is capable of becoming entangled in powerful equipment capable of inflicting traumatic dismemberment and death, and all too often under single-handed operation of an under 10 metre boat. 

According to recent data from the MAIB, like personal flotation equipment worn during sailing boat ocean racing and offshore leisure boating, it would be commercially possible to incorporate buoyancy chambers into the fabric of all work clothing worn at sea. Straps and buckles could be protected from external entanglement by Velcro’d nylon flaps. It would also be simple to sew a universal harness capable of attaching any personal flotation device into waterproof jackets and waterproof trouser crutch areas, with stress-tested seams designed to break under extreme pressure. Rather a ruined set of oilies, than a crushed midriff after an unplanned altercation with a deck winch!

And why are all running wire ropes and chains not safely sandwiched between removable deck panels and directionally controlled by robust fairleads? Or deck-mounted galvanized chain pipes carefully designed to prevent kinking so conspicuous by their absence from most newly built fishing vessels, but commonplace aboard much cheaper leisure yachts?

Also, why are there no safety regulations regarding compulsory energy absorbing foam padding moulded around skull-crushing swinging steel booms?                 

So taking all of the above into close consideration, if fishing boat and equipment manufacturers were to pay similar attention to safer, ‘smarter’ deck gear and boat functionality as they do for costly new propulsion machinery, fish finding technology and ever more electronics, then many a fisherman’s life might  be saved by not falling overboard in the first place.