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Commercial Fishing Accidents

Commercial fishermen go out into the Gulf of Mexico in all kinds of weather to catch fish to feed our nation. It's physically demanding and dangerous work and, unfortunately, some fishing boat owners disregard work safety. Every year, crew members on commercial fishing boats die in preventable accidents. From 2000 to 2009, 116 commercial fishermen died in the Gulf of Mexico, including many from falls overboard and traumatic on-board injuries. Commercial shrimpers were involved in an alarming number of fatal accidents. Many more were injured.

If you have been seriously injured or lost a loved one in a commercial fishing boat accident, it's important to talk to an experienced maritime law attorney at Arnold & Itkin LLP to understand your legal rights. You may be entitled to money for medical bills, lost income, as well as maintenance and cure. Our Jones Act attorneys can review your accident free of charge and advise you on the best course of action.

Commercial Fishing Risks

According to the Center for Public Integrity, the commercial fishing industry causes more fatalities than any other workplace in the country. Despite precautions and legislation, storms at sea, intense weather, and unpredictable complications create dangerous situations while fishermen are far away from help. Combined with strenuous physical labor, long hours, and weeks at sea, exhaustion can and often does contribute to the rate and severity of such accidents. According to statistics listed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, over half of fatalities on commercial fishing vessels between 2000 and 2010 occurred during a vessel disaster.

Severe weather conditions contributed to 61% of the 545 disasters, which included:

  • Flooding – 28%
  • Vessel instability – 19%
  • Struck by a large wave – 18%

Fatalities in commercial fishing vessels can also be caused by:

  • Diving
  • Falling overboard
  • Injuries on board, such as lacerations or head trauma
  • Onshore injuries, such as loading and unloading vessels

Commercial fishing accidents can cause a range of injuries, from hypothermia to drowning. The high rate of these offshore injuries has led to concern about the industry, but very little has been done to prevent future catastrophes.

The Coast Guard and Commercial Fishing

The U.S. Coast Guard, which holds jurisdiction over U.S. fishing vessels is responsible for enforcing the safety of vessels and often involved in rescuing fishermen who find themselves in danger. The Coast Guard recommends extra precautions to avoid incidents, such as CPR training for crewmembers, providing suits for surviving in icy waters, and adequate lifeboats. Overloading a vessel, failing to maintain it, neglecting the crew's need for rest and sustenance, and other factors can easily contribute to dangerous conditions.

Falls in Commercial Fishing

Each year, dozens of fisherman are killed when they fall from dangerous heights on commercial fishing vessels out in the ocean. Others are severely injured. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard do all that they can to reduce the amount of falls in commercial fishing accidents, but they aren't always successful at protecting workers from harm. Employers and supervisors on commercial fishing vessels have the responsibility to prevent falls using whatever means necessary.

Workers are most likely to suffer a fall on a commercial fishing vessel when they are:

  • Painting the outside vessel rails
  • Working on fishing gear
  • Welding the outside of a vessel's hull
  • Working on masts or gantries

In addition to these dangerous jobs, workers are at risk to falls when they are near open hatches. Most fishing vessels have these hatches that can have deep drops into the belly of a ship. All hatches should be protected by coamings or guarded by rails. The OSHA commands that all coamings must be a minimum of 24 inches tall.

Another fall danger is when fishermen board or exit a vessel from the dock. All gangways should be very solid and have guardrails to prevent the possibility of a fall. Individuals who tumble off of the gangway could end up trapped between the dock and the ship, or may collide with one of these hazards in their descent. Gangways should have at least 20 inches of walking surface and be built to carry the anticipated load. When a gangway is not available, fisherman can boar ships using a straight ladder that extends 36 inches above the upper landing and is secured.

Edges of the decks, platforms, scaffolding, runways, staging, or other flat surfaces are other dangers on fishing boats. Because of the rocking motion of the boat and the unpredictability of the oceans, workers may be tossed back and forth on upper platforms and there is a risk that they could come crashing down. This is why all platforms 5 feet above the lower deck must be guarded with guardrails unless something prevents it.

Fall Prevention Methods

Because of a boat's instability, falls are often a threat. The rocking waves can send a boat back and forth, pitching workers on higher levels down to the decks below. Also, poor lighting and slick, wet surfaces promote the possibility of a fall. This is why OSHA suggests that all supervisors on these vessels provide fall protection when a worker is more than five feet above a solid surface. Supervisors are also required to use fall prevention tactics whenever a worker is suspended over the water. When a worker is on the ship on a surface that is five feet from the deck or level below, then the ship should have a guard rail, chain, or rope to serve as a handrail. When there is a hole or another dangerous trip hazard supervisors should cover the area with a toe board. When a person is suspended over the water or if a handrail is not available, then workers are supposed to make use of a fall restraint system.

This is a system that involves a harness and a lifeline and will keep a person from falling off the edge of a surface. When fall restraint systems are not available, fall arrest systems can be used. These are also harness systems that won't prevent a fall but will allow a worker to be caught with minimal injury.

Workers can also reduce the risk of a fall by:

  • Using proper equipment
  • Establishing a proper gangway to board exit vessels
  • Practicing ladder safety
  • Only using cranes to lift personnel when they are approved for this use
  • Keeping equipment out of pathways to reduce trip hazards
  • Using handrails to maintain balance when necessary

Commercial Fishing & Confined Spaces

One of the biggest threats to safety on vessels is confined spaces. When these locations are not identified, tested, and ventilated, workers can be injured or even killed. OSHA and the U.S. Coast Guard both have regulations in place that apply to different activities in the fishing industry to keep employees safe. Among the many regulations issued by these two organizations are rules regarding cleaning, repairs, overhaul, and alteration of vessels at sea, and repairs made dockside or in a shipyard. All of these jobs may involve sending workers into confined spaces.

To keep commercial fishing workers safe, OSHA has identified three main atmospheric hazards:

  • Oxygen Levels: In enclosed spaces, oxygen levels can drop quickly. Any oxygen levels that are too low or too high can result in serious dangers. Per OSHA, low oxygen is normally measured as 19.5% or less. This can lead to a loss of awareness, unconsciousness, and eventual death. Oxygen greater than 22% is considered too high and comes with an added risk for a fire. High oxygen can cause fire to burn at a faster than normal rate and may even create an explosion.

  • Toxic Chemicals: Another danger in enclosed spaces is the presence of toxic chemicals. On fishing vessels, it isn't rare for dangerously high levels of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia to accumulate in poorly ventilated areas. This can affect workers skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It may result in almost immediate death.

  • Flammable Atmospheres: Small, poorly ventilated spaces can often facilitate the danger of a fire or an explosion. As mentioned before, a dangerously high oxygen level poses a fire risk. Flammable or combustible gases or liquids can result in an explosion, especially when an ignition source is introduced.

The following are enclosed spaces that deserve extra attention on a fishing vessel:

  • Refrigeration Spaces: Commercial fishing vessels often have large refrigeration rooms and spaces where the fish are stored. Freon can displace oxygen in these refrigerators, causing the oxygen level to drop dangerously low. Also, ammonia can become flammable in these spaces. Foam insulation in the fridge may catch fire in the case of a combustible reaction, causing severe injury or death.

  • Sewage Tanks: In sewage tanks there are toxic hydrogen sulfide levels and flammable gases. There are also low oxygen levels in these tanks. Workers should avoid entering them when possible.

  • Ballast Tanks, Lazarette and Chain Lockers: Small, confined spaces on fishing vessels can all present the hazard of low oxygen levels. Saltwater can cause metals to rust. Because these containers are normally made of metal, the rust may be present in these locations, and the rust will naturally diffuse oxygen. Eventually, this will result in a low oxygen level displaced by gases and pain vapors. This can be toxic for workers.

  • Slop Tanks, Holds or Voids: Most commercial fishing vessels have some sort of container where organic matter can collect and decompose. These tanks have low oxygen levels and there is normally a significant level of hydrogen sulfide in these locations because of the decomposition of the organic matter.

  • Fuel, Lube or Hydraulic Oil Tanks: These locations can create low oxygen levels and oftentimes the atmospheres are flammable or toxic. Workers would do best to stay away from these enclosed spaces when possible so that they are not injured or do not suffocate from the lack of oxygen inside.

Commercial Fishermen Have Special Legal Rights

Many maritime workers, including commercial fishermen, have special legal rights because of the recognized hazards of their work. At Arnold & Itkin LLP, we believe in holding accountable those boat owners and operators who believe that federal work safety rules don't apply to their crew.

According to a 2010 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, nearly half of the fatal commercial fishing accidents in the Gulf of Mexico from 2000 to 2009 were caused by falls overboard, including slips, trips, and loss of balance. Falls overboard may be prevented by the addition of mesh guards and raised side rails. The Gulf of Mexico commercial fishing industry also had the highest percentage of deaths due to injuries involving entanglement in fishing gear and deck winches.

Accidents On-Board Commercial Shrimp Boats Need Special Attention

Shrimpers accounted for 55 of the 116 commercial fishing fatalities in the Gulf of Mexico, including falls from outriggers. The commercial shrimp industry had, by far, the most fatal accidents of any fishery in the Gulf. The industry needs special attention to reduce the number of fatal accidents, the federal work safety study said. Fatal injuries on shrimp boats may be reduced by installing emergency-stop buttons on deck winches and on other dangerous equipment. Danger zones onboard vessels should be clearly marked and safety drills held to train commercial fishing boat crew in orderly responses in the event of onboard accidents, flooding, or other disasters.

The experienced maritime attorneys at Arnold & Itkin LLP understand fishing boat accidents, and we are committed to holding to account those commercial fishing boat owners and companies that cause harm to others through their careless disregard for safety. Arnold & Itkin LLP is based in Houston, Texas, and our personal injury lawyers represent clients in commercial fishing accidents in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. We are justifiably proud of our record of success as shown by the billions of dollars we have recovered for our clients.

To discuss your accident in a free confidential case evaluation, contact Arnold & Itkin today!

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