Written by Jen Finn
Floatation devices are key to safety on deck
Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports
On May 7, 2003, a 77-foot, steel-hulled dredger departed its home port Newport News, Va., for a two-week scallop trip off the Eastern Shore of Maryland with seven crew members.
The vessel was equipped with a winch with separate winch drums for the port and starboard dredges. The winch drums were engaged separately so each dredge could be handled independently. Normally only one winch drum was engaged at a time.
The winch motor runs constantly and the drums are engaged by a wheel on each drum. There were no visual indicators to alert the crew that the winch drum was engaged or disengaged other than manually checking the wheel.
At approximately 9 p.m. that day, the vessel was bringing in the catch and preparing for another trawl. A crew member stationed at the port dredge was attempting to attach the dump chain hook to the bull ring on the top of the dredge. Meanwhile, the winch operator for the starboard dredge engaged the starboard winch drum to prepare the starboard dredge for deployment. As he operated the controller, he was looking over his shoulder at the starboard dredge and was blind to any work conducted at the port dredge.
The port drum began turning when the winch motor was powered up for operations at the starboard dredge station. Based on the crew statements, the port drum should have been completely disengaged, but apparently it was not. When the winch operator moved the controller handle, both winch drums engaged.
The port dredge jumped off the deck suddenly and caused the crew member at the port station to fall overboard. Immediately, the winch operator was told to stop the winch because the port dredge crew member had fallen overboard.
The captain and a deckhand jumped in the water to retrieve the man overboard as the vessel was turned around. Once back on board, the crew member was reported to be semiconscious for a short period before becoming completely non-responsive.
Coast Guard Group Eastern Shore was first notified of the incident via the radio at around 10 p.m. Through the relay, the Coast Guard was informed that there had been a man-overboard situation, the man was recovered but not breathing, and the crew was performing CPR.
On the scene, the Coast Guard transported the crew member to Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Maryland where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The chief medical examiner in Baltimore determined the cause of death was accidental drowning.
Coast Guard investigating officials tested the winch mechanism and found that all components operated properly, including the motor, brake and controllers. Records indicated the owner had had the winch serviced recently. The crew reported they had not experienced any malfunctions with the winch following the service. The investigating officials were able to replicate the sudden movement of the dredge and affirmed that the motion was sufficiently powerful to throw a person overboard if they were standing on or near the dredge when the movement occurred.
The crew member was not wearing a personal flotation device when working on deck, and others confirmed he was a poor swimmer. Unfortunately, wearing PFDs is uncommon in the commercial fishing industry.
The cause of this casualty was the failure of the crewman who last disengaged the port winch drum to ensure that it was fully disengaged. Contributing to this casualty was the failure of the owner and captain to establish procedures to ensure the winch was properly operated. The most critical factor that influenced the death of the crew member was his failure to wear a PFD.
Fishermen are taking a risk if they work on deck without a PFD.
Falls overboard are the second leading cause of commercial fishing vessel fatalities. Causing three-quarters of all fatalities, water exposure is by far the most significant factor in the loss of life; many die from drowning or hypothermia. People can survive longer in warmer waters — but not indefinitely. For incidents where survival suit and PFD use is known, fishermen survive more than twice as often when the survival equipment is used properly. Deaths can be avoided when lifesaving equipment is available and used properly, as required by the regulations in Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
The highest number of fall-overboard fatalities occurred in the Gulf of Mexico region (40 percent). In general, wearing a flotation device can reduce the risk of falling overboard and facilitate quicker, easier retrieval from the water, especially in cold water.
To reduce the risk of falling overboard:
• Use safety lines (also known as guy lines, jack lines, jill lines and dog lines) when possible.
• Install or extend guard rails where possible.
• Keep decks as clean and clear as possible to prevent slipping or tripping.
• Use non-skid material on decks.
To increase the chances for successful rescues from the water:
• Always wear a flotation device while on deck even if it is not an approved PFD.
• Have a rescue plan and practice it frequently. A rescue system is recommended.
• Never go on deck alone.
• Ensure that more than one person on board is familiar with and can operate the vessel and any retrieval gear in an emergency.
USCG–approved PFDs: III and V
Type III and V PFDs are suitable for comfortable wear while on the deck for many operations. Type III PFDs (flotation aids, such as vests and float coats) are any approved wearable devices that allow the wearers to place themselves in a vertical or slightly backward position in the water.
Wearing Type III vests over or under rain gear allows fairly good mobility. Unfortunately, these vests will not turn an unconscious person face up in the water, nor do they offer much protection from hypothermia.
Type V PFDs (work vests, pullover vests, coveralls, work suits, deck suits) are a broad category. Anti-exposure coveralls, work suits and deck suits provide fair hypothermia protection, especially if the waist straps, leg straps and Velcro around the wrists and ankles are snug.
Most coveralls have an inflatable pillow that will keep the wearer's head out of the water. However, the coveralls will not turn an unconscious person face up in the water. They are a good choice for cold weather.
Type V hybrids are an approved wearable device. They combine limited inherent buoyancy with an air bladder designed to be inflated by a CO2 cartridge or by mouth. Some inflate automatically in the water. Type V hybrids may be the most comfortable Coast Guard–approved PFD to wear while working. Maintenance and care of the inflating devices are critical if the PFD is to perform as intended.
Even if you choose not to wear an approved PFD, wear some device that provides flotation. Then take care of it and wear it, wear it, wear it always when on deck.
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