The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), the UK government’s body for investigating maritime accidents and incidents, has issued a report that calls for all fishermen to be required to wear lifejackets at all times when on vessels. The report comes after a slew of drowning deaths, many of which may have been prevented if the men involved had been wearing personal flotation devices.
A Bad Year for Drownings
The MAIB investigates accidents that occur in the maritime industry and by the fall of 2016 it had investigated nine commercial fishing drowning deaths. The agency has just released reports on four of those deaths and concluded that all four would likely still be alive if they had been wearing lifejackets at the time of the accidents. One accident occurred when a crab fisherman fell overboard I the Sound of Mingulay, another when a man fell over near the Orkney Islands, and another accident occurred when a fishing vessel sank on the Pembrokeshire coast.
New Legislation Recommended
According to the chief inspector, the MAIB does not often officially recommend any kind of change in legislation. However, the rate at which commercial fishermen have been drowning has spurred the agency to take the unusual step. The MAIB claims that there is no reason to believe that drownings will decrease unless an official step is taken to require and enforce the wearing of protective gear.
Currently the wearing of lifejackets by fishermen is only strongly recommended, but not required. The MAIB even participated in a three-year-long campaign to encourage fishermen to wear flotation devices, which included giving a free lifejacket to every fisherman. The campaign has not reduced the incidences of drowning. Evidence from other countries show that these campaigns are not typically effective, but that when combined with legislation that requires the use of lifejackets, changes are made and fewer people drown.
Commercial Fishing among Most Dangerous Industries
All maritime work is dangerous and risky, but commercial fishing is among the most dangerous, in the UK, the U.S. and elsewhere. Fishermen face rough waters and bad weather on fairly small vessels. They work long shifts and battle fatigue while also operating heavy equipment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 58 annual deaths on average in commercial fishing between 1992 and 2008.
The majority of the deaths in commercial fishing between 200 and 2009, according to statistics collected by the CDC, occurred after a vessel disaster or a fall overboard. During this time period, 155 fishermen died after falling overboard and none were wearing personal flotation devices or lifejackets. As in the UK, fishermen are not required to wear them. There are regulations that require fishing vessels to have a flotation device for each person on board, and within easy reach, but not that they be worn at all times.
Commercial fishing will always be dangerous work, but there is no reason for so many workers to die from drowning when there are lifejackets accessible. Whether the recommendation from the MAIB in the UK will result in new legislation remains to be seen, but if it does, many more lives could be saved and the U.S. might follow suit.