Time to change marine safety behaviour

ISSN 2369-873X

15 June 2015
Posted by: Glenn Budden

On June 12, 2014, the newest and least experienced crew member on the fishing vessel Diane Louise went overboard while setting prawn gear near Calvert Island, British Columbia. The crew member was not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) nor were there any onboard. Nobody saw him go overboard. He managed to stay afloat long enough to call for help and attempt to free himself from the groundline before being drawn under the water. Although he was recovered within minutes and CPR was performed, the crew member was subsequently pronounced dead.

Fishermen know all too well that fishing for a living can be risky business. They operate in a harsh environment and have to deal with a complex regulatory system, changing economic and market conditions, and various fisheries management measures, all of which influence their perception of risk. In this occurrence, the crew members demonstrated that they were aware of the risk of entanglement, but they did not manage it consistently. Instead, they developed individual informal strategies for managing the risk, based on their experience. This inadequately addressed the risk of entanglement, especially for those on board with minimal experience.

Falling overboard and drowning is a known risk. In Canada, falling overboard is the second most common cause of fatalities in the fishing industry, according to the TSB’s Safety Issues Investigation into Fishing Safety in Canada (SII). Falling into cold water involves an initial cold shock, which is most dangerous and potentially lethal when a person is suddenly immersed in water below 15°C. This can be quickly followed by exhaustion while the person attempts to stay afloat in the water. This exhaustion increases rapidly without the assistance of a PFD.

WorkSafeBC requires masters to identify potential risks and establish safety procedures to address those risks. It also requires PFDs or lifejackets to be worn by workers “employed under conditions which involve a risk of drowning.” However, in British Columbia, individuals were found to not be wearing a PFD in approximately 40% of fishing‑related fatalities since 2004. When asked why they resist wearing PFDs, they give reasons such as discomfort, the risk of entanglement, and the perception that it is not practical or normal to wear a PFD. Furthermore, risks such as falling overboard, drowning and entanglement are perceived to be low or accidental, with the result that fishermen see little benefit in protecting themselves from these risks while they focus on the day-to-day business of fishing.

As well, unsafe behaviours that are rooted in traditional values, attitudes, practices, and the crew’s perception of efficiency prove the most difficult to change. This is a normal onboard practice and misperception on far too many fishing vessels. Despite the existence of safety regulations, inspection programs, and participation in safety programs by the crew of the Diane Louise, some of the fishing practices and behaviours that posed risks to crew had become routine and no accidents had occurred, and so these practices and behaviours were not changed.

There’s a lot of good work being done by fishermen and the fishing community to improve fishing safety. But there’s still a long way to go. The fishing industry needs to continue to improve fishing safety for the next generation of fishermen. It is inevitable that wearing a PFD while working on deck will become routine, as wearing a seat belt or bike helmet has now become routine.

Recently, the safety research community began encouraging the use of safety management as a modern approach to formally manage operational hazards and risks, while paying particular attention to the commercial fishing environment. The Safety Issues Investigation also advocates that fishermen recognize the physical and environmental hazards present in their operations, understand the risks, and develop behaviours or habits to make their operations safer. Any efforts to improve safety and eliminate unsafe behaviours in commercial fishing have to be made in consideration of the difficult operating environment and must be tailored to work within that context.

Image of Glenn Budden

Glenn Budden has been a Senior Marine Investigator at the TSB since 2008. Prior to joining the TSB, Glenn owned and operated a commercial fishing business. In addition to holding a Fishing Masters II certificate, he has 35 years’ experience in the fishing industry, operating, managing and advising on several types of fishing vessels and fisheries on both coasts. Glenn has only one child left living at home full time, which gives him time to play golf again and more hockey with his wife Leslie.

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