Commercial Fishing Accidents – Falls

Dozens of mariners fall from great heights on commercial fishing vessels on an annual basis, suffering serious injuries that, in some cases, lead to death. While the U.S. Coast Guard and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have taken great strides in regulating safety on fishing boats, they are not always able to protect mariners from injury due to falls.

Fishing Vessel Fall Hazards

Owners and operators of commercial fishing vessels are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that each fishing vessel is seaworthy and that the crew is as safe as can reasonably be expected. Ensuring that the vessel is safe and the crew is properly trained to avoid falls is critical in keeping the crew protected. Common fall hazards on commercial fishing boats include:

  • painting or welding beyond the vessel rails
  • repairing fishing equipment
  • maintaining gantries and masts

Other fall hazards include falling through open hatches, which often open deep down into the belly of the vessel. If these hatches are not protected by rails or comings that are at least 24” tall, the risk of falling down the hatch is significant.

Fall hazards also exist in boarding or leaving a fishing vessel, either from another boat, an aircraft or a dock. Simply slipping off of a gangplank can leave you crushed between the vessel and the dock. All walkways should be at least 20” wide to accommodate the loads typically carried by commercial fishermen.

Due to the fact that fishing vessels are often found in rough sea conditions, the simple act of walking or working on an upper deck, platform or scaffolding can carry significant risk for a fall. The law requires that every surface 5 feet above the main deck be guarded by rails unless it is not feasible.

Reducing the Risk of Falls

Commercial fishing employers must provide adequate training and safety equipment to help prevent falls. Working on a commercial fishing vessel is often rife with instability due to high seas and rough weather. Workers on higher levels of the boat experience the effects of a rocking vessel to a far greater extent than those on the lower decks. Add to that wet surfaces, and the possibility of a fall increases dramatically.

Commercial fishing vessels should have plenty of guard rails and handholds to protect workers from falls. If there is a trip hazard or hole, then the operator should provide proper protection. When workers are required to climb to higher levels of the vessel, they should use proper safety equipment including harnesses and lifelines to keep them from falling from higher levels. And of course, all crew members should be trained in proper safety measures while working at sea. Strategies for reducing fall risk can include:

  • utilizing effective safety equipment, particularly when climbing ladders
  • using proper gangways and walkways
  • keeping decks free of equipment
  • always using handrails when moving about the vessel

Protections for Injured Fishermen

Commercial fishermen are protected under state and federal maritime laws, like the Jones Act, which provides qualified seamen with maintenance and cure benefits and the right to sue their employer directly for negligence. If you are injured due to a fall on a fishing vessel, you have the right to have the following paid by your employer, regardless of whether your employer was negligent:

  • medical expenses
  • housing expenses
  • reasonable living expenses
  • some amount of wages

You have the right to these benefits until your doctor determines that you are healed or have healed as much as possible with the therapies available.

If you can prove that your injuries were the result of some sort of negligence on your employer’s part, you have the right to sue them for past and future wages, retraining, pain and suffering damages and emotional distress. To have the best chance at monetary recovery, you should report your injuries as soon as possible and seek medical treatment. Keep in touch with crew members that can serve as witnesses as well.

Fishing injuries can be serious, but know that the law does protect you in your recovery.

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