National Fisherman

On-deck fatalities can be averted

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

Most fishing-vessel fatalities can be attributed to flooding, sinking or capsizing, and nearly one in four results from falls overboard; however, fully 10 percent of all fatalities occur when crewmen are struck or snared by equipment.

In this instance, a 72-foot, steel-hulled stern dragger was fishing off the East Coast. The 113-ton vessel was built in 1979 and was operating with three crewmen instead of the usual five.

The master had over 15 years' experience on draggers, the last three in charge of this particular vessel. The two crewmen each had more than two years' experience fishing commercially. Standard procedure called for the two crewmen to haul and set the net.

Two days into the trip, the weather was mild as the crew prepared for the day's first haul-back. The captain was forward in the wheelhouse, and the two deckhands were aft on either side of the net reel. The deck was clear.

As usual, the captain used the helm to steer the net onto the reel. Even so, some horsing on the gear is commonplace. The deckhand on the starboard side was operating the reel, but both deckhands pushed and pulled on the ground wires as they were reeled in.

At one point the skipper looked aft to check on how the haul-back was progressing, only to see one of the deckhands going around the reel. The other crewman hadn't seen his shipmate get snared, but he and the skipper later agreed that the reel made two or three complete rotations before it stopped.

The master put the vessel in neutral and hurried astern to assist. With the boat out of gear, the reel freewheeled the other way enough to release the snared crewman, and he fell to the deck.

The injured crewman was bleeding and his breathing was shallow, and the captain made a distress call.

In a half-hour a Coast Guard helicopter arrived over the vessel and hoisted the victim. He was transported to the nearest trauma center, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.

Investigators determined that the victim's shirtsleeve got caught between the reel and the net cables, pulling his left arm into the net reel.

Lessons learned

Several conclusions may be drawn:

• Don't attempt to guide trawl/ground wires or any other running rigging without a guide device.

• Don't disable or bypass dead-man switches or safety devices, such as operating levers that automatically return to the "off" or "neutral" position when released.

• If you don't have one installed already, consider installing a remote safety lever/shutdown device so the master can stop certain winches or machinery from the wheelhouse if a problem arises.

• Consider installing an emergency stop (e-stop) switch that allows the winch to be stopped by a crewman, even if that crewman gets caught in the winch. For more information on an "e-stop" system that was successfully tested on vessels during the 2005-07 fishing seasons, go to

• Hydraulically operated winches and net reels are subject to failure resulting from dirty oil or debris in lines and valves, so keep up on preventive maintenance.

• Never work on operating machinery. Apparatus must be stopped and rendered incapable of accidentally restarting. If necessary, tag-out the controls to alert other crew members that the gear is being worked on.

• If you remove guards and screens that prevent falls and accidental dropping of tools into machinery, don't forget to replace them. If you don't have guards and screens installed, consider doing so.

This article is based on U.S. Coast Guard reporting and is intended to bring safety issues to the attention of our readers. It is not intended to judge or reach conclusions regarding the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any boat or piece of equipment.

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