National Fisherman

Look out below... and around

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports.

Routine work — even in a potentially dangerous environment like a commercial fishing boat — can leave anyone off his guard. Fishermen have to remind themselves constantly to be vigilant of safety hazards, because the work is often the same day in and day out, weeks at a time. The gear on any commercial vessel is enough to cause concern for hazards. Winches, taut lines, cranes, heavy pots, engines and pumps are just a few examples of potentially dangerous machinery that fishermen must constantly be aware of.

During late December 2006, a wood-hulled shrimp boat rigged for side trawling was fishing in the Mississippi Sound approximately 5 miles SSW of Bayou La Batre, Ala. The vessel was 49 feet in length and 21 gross tons. The weather was clear, with little wind, and temperatures in the 60s. The seas were calm.

About midmorning, a crew member on the shrimper went down to the engine room to check the bilge pump and clean out any debris that might be blocking its intake. The pump was positioned below the shaft. The engine was running at a slow speed, in gear with the shaft turning. As the crewman leaned over to reach the pump, his loose shirt and hair got caught on a bolt and coupling on the spinning shaft. It pulled him down, around and underneath the shaft. As his body was forcibly pulled around the shaft, his head struck multiple objects, including transverse framing. His skull was fractured and part of his scalp was separated from his head because his hair was entangled on the shaft.

Another crewman happened to see the victim bend over to reach the pump and get pulled down. He immediately shut off the engine and went below to help. He attempted to cut the victim's shirt loose from the shaft and pull him out from under the shaft, but was unable to do so. The victim was unconscious and not breathing. The other crew member called the Coast Guard for help.

When a boat arrived with emergency medical personnel, the victim was unresponsive and had no vital signs. He was transported to the dock and met by the coroner. The vessel was towed to the dock for an investigation. An autopsy concluded the cause of death was traumatic head injuries, and post-mortem toxicology found evidence of recent cocaine use.

Lessons learned

Considering the location of the bilge pump intake relative to the shaft, it would have been prudent to take the vessel out of gear before checking the pump. This would have prevented the risk of entanglement with the rotating shaft and kept the victim from being pulled into the space.

Covers, guards, or railing should be installed in way of machinery like rotating shafting. The safety practice on this vessel was to keep a plywood cover over the entire shaft area. It had been removed recently because it had become deteriorated from age and use. It had not been replaced for this trip. However, even if it had been in use, the cover would have been removed in order to access the bilge pump, which was located directly below the shaft.

Another safety risk is working around moving machinery with loose clothing. The crew member should have removed his shirt, buttoned or zipped it securely to reduce the chance of tangling. The same precaution should be considered for anyone with long hair. It should be tied back or tucked up in a hat when working with moving equipment.

Finally, this fisherman's actions may have been impaired. The autopsy and lab test indicated the presence of a controlled substance in his system. Alcohol and drug testing are required after any serious marine casualty to determine if an individual was under the influence or impaired which may have been a factor in the accident. If you become aware of drug and alcohol use, you should remove the offender(s) from the vessel for safety reasons in addition to legal ones. Your safety and that of others may depend on it: www.fishsafe.info.

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