National Fisherman

Eternal vigilance is the price of safety

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

When making repairs at sea, we often are primarily concerned with getting the job done quickly or correcting the situation before it causes additional problems or damage. However, vessel motion makes repairing equipment at sea significantly riskier than performing the same activity at the dock.

In May 2005, a 79-foot scallop vessel departed Newport News, Va., on a fishing trip to an area off the New Jersey coast. The master and crew of six worked in the usual shifts. The weather was mild and the seas were about 2 feet.

Seven days into the trip, during the early morning hours, the captain noticed a shackle working loose in the rigging on the starboard side. Two days before, the mate had climbed the rigging to tighten a shackle pin. He used the same ladder but did not go all the way to the top.

When the skipper climbed the 30 feet into the rigging to tighten the shackle, the steel ladder's uppermost rung, rusted and fatigued, broke free. The skipper fell, striking a cable in the rigging and then landing head-first onto the steel deck below. Crew members working on deck responded immediately, but he was unresponsive, not breathing and had no pulse. The crew performed first aid and called for assistance. A Coast Guard patrol boat was on scene in about an hour and transported the skipper to Cape May, N.J., where he was pronounced dead from severe head injuries.

Lessons learned

The vessel had successfully completed a voluntary dockside safety examination a year prior to the incident and was issued a safety decal. Also about a year prior to the accident, a marine surveyor had conducted an inspection of the vessel for insurance and value reporting purposes. The survey report noted that the vessel was very well maintained, operated by an experienced crew, and that the owner had a shore facility where maintenance was performed whenever needed. All rigging and deck equipment had been visually inspected and appeared to be in sound condition. Items of concern and recommendations in the survey were corrected and completed by the owner.

The obvious cause of this accident was the wastage or fatigue of the metal rung in the rigging that caused it to break under the skipper's weight. However, several factors may have contributed to this unfortunate accident. The shackle may not have been properly tightened or secured from an earlier repair, which would have eliminated the need for the master to climb into the rigging. Shackles can be spot welded or moused with wire ties or other means to prevent the screw pin from working loose.

Another contributing factor was the skipper's lack of a safety line or harness. While not necessarily preventing injury altogether, a safety line or harness would have broken the master's fall to the deck. Safety gear restricts movement, making it less desirable while climbing in the rigging, but one must be even more cautious during such operation.

Fatigue, inattention, and lack of situational awareness may also have contributed to this accident. After seven days of hard work without adequate rest, anyone can easily make a decision or take action that he or she might not otherwise.

While this vessel and its equipment appeared to have been well maintained, there were problems with the ladder and rigging gear. Double-checking rigging gear and the structural integrity of ladders before a trip and during its use is critical to safe operations. Accidents of this nature are not common and can be prevented by paying attention to detail and the condition of the equipment.

Be aware, be safe, and prevent the consequences.

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