Commercial Fishing Accidents – Falls Overboard

Few things can make your blood run colder than hearing “MAN OVERBOARD” when you’re out at sea. Falling overboard is a real risk on commercial fishing vessels, regardless of the amount of experience you have on the water. One wrong move by any of the crew can send you flying into the cold drink before you know what hit you. In fact, falling overboard is the second leading cause of death among professional fishermen.

Between 2000 and 2014, over 200 fishermen fell overboard and died in U.S. waters. None were wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs).  In over 50% of those cases, the person fell into the water, and no one saw them. Combining cold to near-freezing water temperatures, fast boat speeds and the fact that many people who fall overboard end up hitting their heads on the way down, it’s no wonder that so many people died from falling overboard.

Preventing Man Over-Board (MOB) Incidents

Maritime employers are responsible for ensuring crew safety while aboard their vessels. Unfortunately, due to the nature of commercial fishing, there are very few enforcement opportunities when it comes to preventing MOB incidences. However, if crew members are injured or killed by falling off of the vessel, both captain and employer can be found negligent and financially responsible for the consequences.

Every maritime employer should have MOB prevention procedures in place and crew trained on how to respond in a MOB situation. Requirements and procedures should include:

  • Strong PFD policy, particularly when working alone
  • Use of a personal MOB alarm
  • Utilizing water-activated or proximity kill switches for engines to keep the vessel within close proximity to the MOB

If a crewmember does go overboard, recovery processes should include:

  • Sound MOB alarm
  • Maintain visual contact with the MOB
  • Mark the MOB location by throwing anything that floats into the water and by marking the location on the GPS
  • Return vessel to MOB position
  • Deploy a rescue swimmer or rescue device
  • Recover MOB via hydraulic hauler or block and tackle

The best way to stay alive in a MOB situation is to wear a PFD. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that seamen who were able to find PFDs that were comfortable to wear and enabled them to do their jobs were more likely to wear them and less likely to die in MOB situations.

MOB Fatality Causes

Fishermen can fall overboard by simply being unprepared for the pitching and rolling motion of the vessel, or they can be swept off the vessel by a large wave. The most common reasons that crew fall overboard and die include:

  • Flooding of the deck – 28%
  • Vessel instability (pitching and rolling) – 19%
  • Vessel encountered large wave – 18%
  • Hazardous weather conditions – 61%

Maritime Worker Protections

Because working on the ocean is a dangerous undertaking, the U.S. government has instituted protections for maritime workers in the form of state and federal maritime laws, including the Jones Act. The Jones act provides qualified seamen who are injured while on duty with additional rights not afforded to land-based workers. Injured seaman are entitled to:

  • maintenance and cure benefits
  • a private right of action against their employer for negligence

Maintenance and cure benefits include payment of medical, transportation and housing expenses while you are recovering and you need not prove negligence to obtain these benefits. If you can show that your employer was negligent, either directly or through the negligence of the captain or other crew members, you can sue directly for lost wages, retraining, pain, and suffering and emotional distress.

The Jones Act also provides heirs to a deceased seaman with a right to sue for their loss as well.

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