It was just supposed to be another ordinary fishing trip, except that on the water things don't always happen the way they’re supposed to. But that can change.
An accident onboard the scallop dragger Compass Rose II in June 2015 left a crewmember with permanent injuries. In a room of fishermen and others 28 months later, the owners of that vessel, Yarmouth Sea Products Ltd., gave a presentation on the extensive safety steps that have been undertaken to prevent such an accident from happening again.
The presentation was ordered by the court as part of the penalty handed to the company following guilty pleas to three Occupational Health and Safety Act charges. But the company also sees this as an opportunity to advance safety within the industry.
“We’re here with the intention of trying to educate and encourage members of the fishery to up their game when it comes to safety on the water,” said company attorney Clifford Hood during a public session in Yarmouth.
The Compass Rose II was fishing in the Bay of Fundy on June 7, 2015, when the crew started hauling in the drag around 4:30 p.m. One of the crewmembers had prematurely moved into position to attach a hook under the drag when a cable broke, causing the drag to fall and a heavy ring to strike him on the head.
The Rescue Coordinator Centre was immediately notified as the crew administered first aid. Assistance was provided by the Digby-Saint John ferry, which transported the crewmember to hospital in Saint John, N.B. He was later airlifted to Halifax.
He had suffered a skull fracture, a broken bone in his neck and an orbital bone (eye socket) had been fractured. In a victim impact statement to the court the man said that day changed his life, and his family’s life, forever. He suffers from seizures, brain damage, has chronic pain and will be on medication for the rest of his life. It has caused great financial strain for the family with life-long physical and painful repercussions.
Yarmouth Sea Products Ltd. was charged with three Occupational Health and Safety Act charges that related to not ensuring protective equipment, ie: a hat hard, was worn; not having a written occupational health and safety program and not taking every precaution that is reasonable to provide instruction, training, supervision, etc., as necessary for the health and safety of employees.
The company pleaded guilty to the charges and was fined $10,000 and ordered to contribute $30,000 to the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia, in addition to holding two public information sessions on safety. The money that went to the safety association is being used for the printing and distributing of on-board familiarization checklists for the fishing industry, for fishing vessel safety and for educational awareness.
When interviewed after the accident, the injured crewmember had indicated that Compass Rose II was one of the safest vessels he had been on – this was his third trip – and that for hours and hours crewmembers were drilled by the captain about what to do and what not to do on boat, in addition to making them familiar with the vessel.
But the court and the Department of Labour say for fishing vessels that’s not good enough.
“The captain had told everyone what to do, but the vessel didn’t have it writing,” said Charles Pothier, a retired occupational health and safety officer. “He thought he was doing what he was supposed to do.”
And yet even when it’s in writing, Pothier added, that still isn’t enough. It’s one thing to develop a safety program, but what matters is that it’s implemented and followed on a daily basis – no matter the size of the vessel or its crew.
Following the accident, Yarmouth Sea Products spent in excess of $220,000 on health and safety upgrades within its fleet and plant operations.
And while this particular accident happened on a scallop dragger, the lessons can be applied to any sector of the fishery, whether it’s scallop, lobster, groundfish, etc.
In this case, it was determined the company should have had a written safety procedure in place, it should have had designated safe areas marked for where crewmembers are to stand when the drag is being lifted, it should have had a requirement for deck crew to wear CSA certified safety hats when hoists are being used. It has all this now, and more. Land-based and fleet occupational health and safety committees have been formed. Procedural policies focusing on safety have been developed. Vessels all have adequate boarding ladders, high water alarms and watch alarms, in addition to survival suits and safety hats and numerous other safety equipment on board. A red line has been painted six feet along the outer edge of the wharf where vessels are tied to warn captains, crews and contractors that a PDF has to be worn if they cross the red line towards the water.
And the list of safety improvement goes on and on – too extensive to all list in this article. Jameson Theriault Marine Survey says Yarmouth Sea Products’ implementation of safe work practices now exceeds Transport Canada regulations and has set a new industry standard for crew safety in the Scotia Fundy Scallop fleet. And key to the success of improving the safety culture is that employee input was part of the process.
Pothier said there can never be enough emphasis placed on safety by fishermen.
“You should investigate every accident, big or small, to make sure it doesn't happen again,” he said. It’s not enough to just provide PFDs. You have to make sure they are worn.
And responsibility falls to everyone, not just to employers and captains.
“If the crew doesn’t tell the captain that something is wrong, it can’t be fixed,” he said.
No one wants to see anyone injured on the job, stressed Hood.
“These accidents sometimes have immediate effect, but more importantly they have long-term effects for victims. They are covered by Worker’s Compensation,” Hood said, noting while the premiums are expensive, they do have many benefits in cases of injuries and fatalities for victims and/or their families. “Yarmouth Sea Products is sorry this accident happened but it can't fix that, other than to come here today and try to advance safety in the industry.”
There was lively discussion during the session. Among those who took in the presentation was Hubert Saulnier of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union who summed up things with this message.
“I’ve heard many times how dangerous fishing is. I personally know it’s dangerous but I really think it doesn’t have to be as dangerous, we can be safer,” he said, noting to the industry, “It’s really up to us to make it safer.”