The U.S. Coast Guard is authorized to board vessels at sea in order to do vessel safety inspections, and if discrepancies are found, they are authorized to escort the vessel and crew back to port and deny future voyages until those discrepancies are resolved.
An example of this is when the Coast Guard conducted an at-sea boarding of F/V ARCTIC STORM this past Thursday. According to the Coast Guard, there were six counted safety violations on ARCTIC STORM, including that the vessel life raft and hydrostatic release had expired back in 2006. This event, which is fortunately actually a non-event, serves as a good reminder to keep up with safety regulations while out fishing.
The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010, Title VI, and the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2012, Title III, encode current laws and regulations regarding safety requirements on a fishing vessel. This gear must be kept in good repair, easily accessible, fit to the person using it, and within the expiry. The expiry is important because rubber, adhesives, fabrics, and many other materials used in rafts, personal flotation devices (PFD), and immersion suits eventually deteriorate in the extremes of weather and sea. Likewise, inflation propellants lose their pressure and efficacy over time. It can be and often is a matter of life and death to have appropriate safety gear that doesn’t come apart at the seams when you most need it.
The Coast Guard statistics for U.S. fishing vessel fatalities during 1992 -2010 show 81% of the fatalities are from being pulled overboard (4%), falling overboard (24%), or from the vessel flooding, capsizing, or sinking (53%). In other words, the majority of commercial fishing deaths occur in the water, not on deck. We may not know the exact percentage of lives that could have been saved through proper safety equipment and training, but we may guess it would be a substantial percentage.
As with so many safety laws, tragedies occurred before enactment. One such tragedy was that of 93-foot F/V KATMAI, which sank in October of 2008 – four men lived, but seven men died. In addition to the numerous other factors involved in the sinking of KATMAI, one complication was that one of the rafts was missing its CO2 inflation cartridge, while another raft kept flipping over. Another disaster was when 190-foot F/V ALASKA RANGER sank in March of 2008. Of the 47 on board, five were lost. As with KATMAI, there were a number of reasons underlying why ALASKA RANGER sank, but with regard to personnel safety, the immersion suits were not fit to the individuals working on board, they were not in all cases easily accessible, and immersion suit training was questionable. Several of the smaller statured people were assigned ill-fitting large-size suits and soon found themselves filling with cold sea; some other crewmembers realized that their suits were damaged even as they put them on. While most of the suits were in decent shape, several were over ten years old, which is always a risk in terms of degraded materials.
Rescue out at sea is rarely instant – help arriving within an hour or two is considered fast. Yet a vessel may capsize with little or no notice and can sink within minutes. If a crew needs to spend any length of time in a life raft or in an immersion suit, that gear needs to function perfectly for each person. And the old adage that PFDs aren’t worth the trouble because hypothermia will kill you in only three minutes isn’t true – hypothermia can take much longer than that to kill the average person. Further, when wearing a PFD, a person who has been knocked overboard and is possibly injured and unable to swim, but is alive, can be located and saved instead of sinking.
By law, by common sense, and with respect for human life, a vessel must be seaworthy. The definition of vessel seaworthiness includes the seaworthiness of the equipment on board. Safety gear, how it is maintained, where it is stowed pending use, and crew safety training all fall under the heading of seaworthiness. The vessel owner ultimately is responsible for keeping the vessel seaworthy. At the time KATMAI and ALASKA RANGER sank, there were no Safety Management Systems (SMS) in place for U.S. commercial fishing vessels, but now there are. If injury or death result from a proven lack of seaworthiness, there is potential that those responsible for the vessel may find themselves facing claims of negligence.
The Coast Guard is continuing to do free dockside commercial fishing vessel safety exams to help pinpoint problems and to advise as to remedies. If you are boarded for an inspection while working at sea but can show you’ve passed muster, unlike ARCTIC STORM last week, it’s likely that you’ll keep on fishing and that you’ll be prepared for emergencies. You can contact your nearest Coast Guard station with questions and scheduling. Further detail, including a vessel safety checklist and reference to current law, can also be found at www.fishsafe.info.
If you have been injured working on a vessel and want to make certain of your rights, please contact us. Otherwise, check your equipment, wear a PFD suited to your work on the deck, and stay safe out there.