Working for a sea change: health and safety in the fishing industry

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Fishing is not a job for the faint hearted; at the mercy of the weather, on a small platform out at sea and miles from home, the crews on fishing vessels face daily perils. But a series of initiatives are underway to make this dangerous job somewhat safer and hopefully end the occupational requirement for nerves of steel.

Despite a long fishing tradition, the abundance of regulations in place and the amount of organisations offering health and safety advisory services to the industry, in 2012 nine fishing vessels were lost and six crew members died in British seas, according to statistics published by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO). The number of people injured came to 50, with machinery failure accounting for the largest number of reported incidents.

The reality is that despite the development of technology, legislation and more precise and detailed weather forecasts, fishing still poses a great number of hazards, even when the crew are just getting on with their daily activities. Basic precautionary measures to avoid accidents should focus on preventing falls overboard, promoting a more widespread use of personal floatation devices and, importantly, reducing stress. The operation of small vessels and trawling net maneuvers in hazardous weather and sea conditions remains a risky one.

In 2012 the UK had the sixth largest fishing fleet in the European Union in terms of vessels, after Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France. But the UK fishing industry had 15% fewer vessels than in 2002 and the number of crew members fell by alm

ost 1,800 to 12,445 over the same period. Even considering this, there were still six fatalities, compared to eight a decade earlier.

There are ongoing efforts to improve safety at sea and a number of agencies keep working to help improve crew training and tackle persistent problems, such as fishermen’s reluctance to put on lifejackets while carrying out routine work.

Accident investigations 

Every year, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) receive  between 1,500 and 2,000 incident reports, of which 40 to 50 become full investigations with published reports. The choice of which incidents are investigated is made on the basis of the scope of the safety lessons that may be learned.

In 2012, 30 reports were published by the MAIB. For example, in March, there was a collision between the cargo vessels Seagate and Timor Stream, 24 nautical miles north of the Dominican Republic. All 20 of Timor Stream’s crew and all 21 people aboard Seagate were unharmed, but the accident led to 3,300 gallons of diesel fuel and about 1,500 gallons of lubrication oil leaking from Seagate into the ocean.

The same month, the coaster Union Moon and the passenger ferry Stena Feronia collided at the Fairway Buoy at the mouth of Belfast Lough. In May 2012, Purbeck Isle sank, killing all three on board; the following September trawler Sarah Jayne capsized, resulting in one crew member dying. The subsequent investigations concluded that the sinking of the Purbeck Isle and the Sarah Jane was due to excessive vessel loading.

Steve Clinch, chief inspector of MAIB, told Safety Management: “Of particular concern is the message this behaviour sends to junior officers and how it may influence the next generation of master mariners. A real commitment to the safety management system from the highest echelons of management, together with a concerted effort to instil the company’s safety culture within ships’ senior staff is definitely required.”

Although no one was injured in the Union Moon and Stena Feronia collision, the MAIB reported that the master of Union Moon was drunk. “The excessive consumption of alcohol by watch-keepers on commercial vessels is a persistent problem”, said Steve.

The MAIB reports demonstrate  particular concern with overloading. “There is a compelling need for those vessels to be provided with stability and loading information. Fishermen also need to be better informed about the dangers of overloading, since their skippers often have little or no understanding about the importance of those issues.”



Lifelong learning
Training plays a central role in reducing the number of accidents at sea. Crew need to keep their knowledge up to date, share information both with the authorities and among themselves and use the latest available technology to improve safety.

A safety awareness course, developed by Seafish, a public body that supports and improves the environmental sustainability, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the fishing industry, is available for all fishing crew to attend. The course was developed in 2005, updated in 2012 and is now set to be adopted by other European countries through a special training event organised by the Fishing Industry Safety & Health EU platform.

Simon Potten, head of safety, training and services at Seafish says: “It is a one-day course for experienced fishermen. The existing basic safety courses are all focused on what to do after an accident has happened – sea survival, fire fighting, first aid and health and safety – while this course can be characterised as risk assessment and behavioural change training, if you will, determined to teach experienced fishermen how to prevent bad situations from happening.”

For all fishing crew attending the course, Seafish provides a safety folder, which can be used to record all accidents or incidents specific to the boat. Seafish also encourages crew to complete the safety folder online, as an easier and quicker way of dealing with risk. To date, nearly 2,000 experienced fishermen have completed the course.

The Fishing Industry Safety Group (FISG) is a meeting hosted by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) that gathers twice a year with all organisations involved in safety in the fishing industry. “We try to co-ordinate our efforts for maximum effect and improvement of fishermen safety,” explains Simon. “That way, every organisation does not do its own thing and reinvent the wheel and waste resources, but instead we delegate the specific requirements of the industry to the appropriate organisation.

“For instance, if MAIB recommends that an accident could have been prevented, if specific information was incorporated in a training course, then Seafish, which is responsible for training, looks into it and takes action.”



Saving the man overboard
Many fishermen are reluctant to wear their lifejackets while on board due to the fact that they can be bulky and awkward to work with. Since ‘man overboard’ (the situation where a person needs rescuing after falling into the sea from a boat) is still the biggest cause of fatalities, there is now a scheme in place to supply every UK fisherman with a personal floatation device (PFD). PFDs are designed to be lightweight and easy to wear, without impeding the movements required by a fisherman while on deck. This scheme is funded by a number of European and UK organisations.

James Hudson, former safety and training officer at the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO), explains the background to the initiative. “It started with a stern trawler engaged in the decommissioning of a gas platform in the North Sea. Due to the nature of the work, the usual lifejacket was too bulky and awkward to be used. Consequently, all fishermen on the deck were provided with small compact lifejackets, which would ensure safety but also flexibility of movement.”


This specific compact lifejacket was later presented to an NFFO executive committee and an FISG meeting for evaluation. Members decided to distribute the compact lifejacket to staff of different organisations. Fishermen can apply and collect their free PFD by downloading an online form or attending the regular events focused on fishing industry safety.

Both Simon from Seafish and James from NFFO said they want to see a year where no fishing crew are killed at work. The FISG has been also monitoring Iceland’s performance as a benchmark, as it is a country with a very good safety record; no fishermen have died over the last couple of years.

“Fishing is a dangerous job,” Simon concludes. “You undertake difficult, strenuous work on a small platform that is moving about and you are at the mercy of the weather, which can change very quickly. It’s not an occupation for the faint hearted. There are a number of projects underway to improve fishermen’s safety but the real challenge is to make them more safety-conscious so that they stop and think before they undertake an action.”



Information on fishing vessel health and safety is available hereMMO UK sea fishery statistics are available here.  



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