Safety at Sea

Safety at Sea

A changing safety culture

A gradual culture change has been taking place across much of the fishing industry over the last couple of decades, with the old macho disregard for safety being replaced as a greater awareness of safety at sea becomes accepted.

According to marine underwriting manager Craig McBurnie at Sunderland Marine, it’s not easy to pinpoint any single reason for the growth of a more positive safety culture – but the change in attitudes is welcome.

As one of the world’s leading insurers of fishing vessels, Sunderland Marine keeps a close eye on the fishing industry’s evolution and has encouraged increasing safety awareness.

‘We want to see safer boats,’ he said. ‘And that’s not only because a safer fishing vessel is a better insurance risk, but because we see ourselves as part of the fishing industry and want to give something back.’

A culture of greater safety awareness has been developing in recent years

Stricter requirements and a greater availability of safety equipment are factors in this development, but there are other considerations.

‘Safety equipment is great, but you can have all the equipment and it’s no use if you don’t know how to use it. So safety training is crucial. The message is that a well-trained crew means a safer boat, and the collective message is that safety is paramount.’

Sunderland Marine has taken the initiative where it has seen that improvements can be made, supporting and sponsoring nautical colleges which offer training. This is not just in the UK, but also through initiatives in Australia and New Zealand, both of which have also seen a safety culture developing in the right direction over the last couple of decades.

Sunderland Marine has been instrumental in promoting safety at sea in the US

In the US, Sunderland Marine has also been instrumental in making available independent safety drills for crews working on East Coast draggers and scallopers.

In addition, the offshore crab fishery that’s familiar to anyone who has seen the Deadliest Catch on TV has seen positive changes.

Firefighting training for fishermen at a nautical college in the UK

‘Alaska is improving,’ he said, commenting that fisheries management also plays a part in safety cultures, as phasing out Derby-style fisheries in favour of management regimes that remove incentives to push the weather and take chances has noticeable effects on safety records.

‘In Australia we see well-managed fisheries and a strong safety culture, but what we also see there is the ageing population as the average fisherman in​ Australia is over fifty, and there are relatively few overseas crews there. It tends to be offshore longliners that carry some Filipino or Indonesian crew,’ he said.

‘In the UK the average age is over forty, but as much as a third of crew are non-UK. It’s something we are monitoring to see if this has any implications for safety on board, and so far we haven’t seen anything to indicate this might be the case. We ask a lot about how they communicate, and usually the standard of English is good. The majority are from the Philippines, plus a number from the Baltic region, Romania, Russia, and there’s a minority from Ghana where the first language is English. We get a lot of anecdotal feedback from UK vessel operators on the quality of foreign crews, and what we hear is that those coming from the Philippines are fantastic crew.’

Sunderland Marine is active in the Netherlands, where there is a strong safety culture, alongside a relatively small number of overseas crew working within the fisheries sector – but where the pattern of the rising average age of fishermen is repeated.

Rising crew ages and frequent problems in recruiting, plus some major technological advances that have eliminated the heavy lifting from many fisheries also contribute to reduced manning levels. It’s frequently in the crew’s interest to split the share fewer ways, while most regulatory agencies require a minimum number of crew in various positions on board. As operators and regulators don’t always have priorities that align, establishing the right manning level can be problematic.

Stricter requirements and a greater availability of safety equipment are part of the picture – but not all of it...

‘This is something we discuss a lot with the Fishing Industry Safety Group, and it’s something to be aware of. In broad terms, a tired crew leads to mistakes,’ Craig McBurnie said.

‘We’re also very aware of the perils of single-handed operation. Some boats are rigged to operate with just one person on board, for whatever reason, including not being able to recruit crew. But on your own, something goes wrong and there’s nobody there to bail you out – and there are plenty of horror stories of single-handed fishermen getting caught up in their own gear.’

Sunderland Marine's Craig McBurnie has seen changes in the fishing industry's safety culture

Building on progress

‘Too many men were being lost at sea, often in conditions when wearing a lifejacket or the crew having carried out a man overboard drill could have contributed to saving their lives,’ he said.

‘There were some frightening statistics in the past and there’s still more to be done. This is continually evolving.’

He commented that significant steps have already been taken, including the advent of the ILO 188 Work in Fishing convention, which puts more focus on safety and brings greater obligations concerning welfare and safety, regardless of who is on board and where they are from. But for now, progress is more about fine-tuning the systems that are already in place.

‘We can continue to work with government agencies, or independently, and we produce a lot of guidance, including guides to man overboard responses, collision avoidance, hot work and more, all of which is available free from our website. Not long ago we also produced a New Starter Safety Guide that was well received worldwide – and we had requests for more copies from several parts of the world, including Spain and Belgium. This was so popular that we translated it into Flemish for the Belgian fishermen,’ Craig McBurnie said.

‘A good safety culture has to cover everyone. We push the message that prevention is better than cure, and just one life saved is money well spent.’