Processing fish at sea has numerous benefits. At-sea-processing offers consumers the freshest product, reduces waste due to spoilage, and minimizes transportation fuel costs. But what happens to the waste products such as fish heads, fins and internal fish organs? They cannot simply be thrown overboard as they are considered “garbage”. The IMO has set up rules and regulations for the prevention of pollution by garbage from vessels and is covered under the Annex V of MARPOL.
MARPOL food waste disposal regulations require grinding seafood waste remains into particles ½” or smaller before they can be disposed of in Alaskan waters. This means that fish processing vessels must be outfitted with industrial grinders that can handle these byproducts. In addition, the ground seafood waste can only be discharged when the vessel is 3 nautical miles or more from land or 12 nautical miles from land if the vessel is in a location deemed “special”.
But these are not just any grinders. These heavy-duty industrial grinders, such as the Muffin Monster industrial seafood waste processor, must be able to grind rocks that have been ingested by sea creatures and stainless steel fishhooks that may still be in their mouths. It isn’t unusual for a halibut head to weigh more than 35 pounds, and these industrial grinders are known to macerate it in less than 20 seconds.
With all this power and torque, it is recognized that this is serious and dangerous equipment. So dangerous in fact, that the U.S. Coast Guard has rules and regulations in place requiring the use of “guards”, so operators do not get clothing, limbs, or worse, caught in the jaws or gears of such equipment. According to U.S. Coast Guard 46 CFR 28.215:
(a) Each space on board a vessel must meet the requirements of this section.
(b) Suitable hand covers, guards, or railing must be installed in way of machinery which can cause injury to personnel, such as gearing, chain or belt drives, and rotating shafting. This is not meant to restrict necessary access to fishing equipment such as winches, drums, or gurdies.
(c) Each exhaust pipe from an internal combustion engine which is within reach of personnel must be insulated or otherwise guarded to prevent burns.
What happens when vessel owners do not make worker safety a priority? Last week, we met with a worker who lost his toes and part of his foot in a horrific event. The chewed up boot image featured in this post is real. On this processing vessel, it is common for fish heads to stack up during processing. The workers are ordered to “stomp” on the pile of fish heads, so they engage the fish heads with the grinding teeth of the rotating shaft. This is a long-standing practice aboard this vessel, and many workers were ordered to do the same thing. While the grinder came to the vessel with the required guard, it had been removed so processors could access the grinder with their feet. Worker safety was not a priority on this vessel.
When working at sea, safety is paramount. Jones Act Law is in place to add an extra layer of protection. Jones Act employers must:
• Provide a safe working environment, including safe equipment, tools and safety devices
• Conduct regular safety inspections to ensure that the work environment is safe and free from hazards
• Provide adequate training, supervision and assistance to all employees
• Take adequate measures, such as required background checks and drug testing, to ensure that workers are safe from the harmful acts of other crew members
• Adopt and enforce safety rules and regulations
• Provide adequate and working emergency safety equipment for all employees
• Ensure the vessel is properly manned
• Not require the crew to work in inclement weather or dangerous conditions
Note that under the Jones Act, every employee has the right to a “safe place to work”. This is perhaps the most comprehensive of all Jones Act rules and especially applies when injuries occur. In the case above, it is glaring that our client was not provided with this most basic right. The required guard was removed from a dangerous piece of machinery, and a man lost part of his foot due to negligence. This is a direct violation of the U.S. Coast Guard Safety Regulations. Unfortunately, these violations are all too common. We often hear from workers that “this is how it has always been done” even though rules and regulations have been blatantly violated. These laws are in place to protect maritime workers. If an employer is violating a law or rule, speak up. It may save your life or the life of a crew member. If you are a vessel owner, skipper, or supervisor, always put the safety of your crew first.