Commercial fishing is the most dangerous of all industries in which you can work. Fishermen take big risks every day on the job, and on the upside, can earn a great salary as a result. In fishing the hours are long, the work is grueling, the weather is cold, and the equipment used is heavy and dangerous. Many commercial shipping vessels include onboard plate freezers to process, preserve and store the catch. These machines are large and extremely cold, with a lot of moving parts.
These freezers do the job of compressing and preserving fish so that the catch can be safely stored until the ship comes into harbor. However, these machines can be dangerous. A number of accidents may be caused by faulty freezer equipment, shifting parts and blocks of frozen fish, and the cold plates of the freezer, not to mention mistakes made by untrained workers. If you work with the freezer on a shipping vessel, you work in a hazardous environment. Compensation is your right if you are injured while doing your job.
Freezer Trawlers and Vessels
Freezer trawlers or freezer vessels are commercial fishing boats that have plate freezers on board to freeze and preserve the catch while still out at sea. It is important for commercial fishermen to be able to preserve the catch right away to prevent it from going bad. Spoiled fish can’t be sold and because these vessels often stay out to sea for weeks or months, having freezers for keeping the fish right on board the ship is important. Without these large and efficient freezers, fishing vessels would risk losing an entire catch to spoiling before even coming into harbor.
To get fish frozen and stored quickly, most of these boats use plate freezers. This equipment is made up of several plates, stacked either vertically or horizontally. The plates have channels running through them, and these carry refrigerant through the plates to keep them at a very low temperature. Fish are placed between the plates and the plates are pressed together. The temperature of the plates is as low as 30 or 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The fish pressed between the plates freeze very quickly, and can therefore be processed quickly. They are also pressed into blocks of fish that are easy to store.
Accidents with Plate Freezers
All jobs in commercial fishing are dangerous and risky. If you work on a fishing vessel you face rough waters, hazardous weather, complicated equipment, and risks of falling overboard, developing hypothermia, and accidents from being fatigued or untrained in using the fishing equipment. If you work with the plate freezers, you face additional hazards on the job. The vast majority of accidents that cause injuries on fishing vessels occur during the processing and handling of frozen fish.
The freezers themselves can lead to a number of accidents and injuries. The plates are extremely cold and any contact with bare skin can cause serious damage. Being careless around the plates or not having access to appropriate safety gear, like heavy duty gloves, can easily lead to frostbite, torn skin, and other damage from the cold plates. Shifting in the ship as it goes through rough waters and weather can also cause a problem. The blocks of frozen fish created by the plate freezers are large and heavy. If the ship dips or tilts suddenly, one of these blocks can be dislodged and ejected from the freezer and may hit a worker.
In addition to the freezers, processing fish aboard a boat involves working with and around conveyor belts, chutes, and other working parts. Getting clothing caught in a conveyor belt can have serious consequences and may result from a lack of safety guards, inappropriate attire, or inadequate training in using the equipment. While storing boxes of frozen blocks of fish, shifting on the boat can cause these boxes to move, fall, or drop onto workers causing injuries.
Another type of accident that may occur in working with the frozen catch is less obvious and less immediate. These workers have to lift a lot of heavy objects and move in repetitive ways for hours on end. This can lead to the kinds of injuries that develop over time, including back and neck injuries and pain, swollen painful joints, and repetitive stress injuries.
Common Freezer Plate Injuries
There are many ways in which you may be injured while working in the freezer area of a fishing boat. On freezer trawlers and similar ships, most injuries are caused while working with frozen fish. The heavy blocks of frozen fish and boxes of frozen fish as well as the freezer itself can easily cause accidents that lead to some of the more common injuries:
- Punctures, cuts, and lacerations
- Contusions or deep bruising
- Head injuries
- Sprains, strains, and torn ligaments
- Fractured bones
- Swollen joints
- Repetitive stress injuries
Fatalities are also possible for workers in the freezer area of a shipping vessel. Being struck by a large box of frozen fish or block of frozen catch can cause death, especially if the worker is struck on the head. Although not common, workers have also died from being asphyxiated by the refrigerant used in the freezer while working in a confined space with inadequate ventilation.
If you work in this industry and are responsible for using the plate freezers and processing the catch aboard your fishing vessel, you should know what your rights are in the event of accidents that cause you injuries. Maritime law guarantees you the right to compensation for your living expenses and medical expenses while you can’t work, regardless of any negligence that may have contributed to the accident. This is your right according to the law of maintenance and cure.
Although the work is inherently risky, many accidents aboard fishing trawlers could have been prevented. Negligence is often involved in these accidents, including improper training for workers, inadequate safety gear, long hours with too few breaks and resulting fatigue, improperly maintained or repaired equipment, and assigning workers to tasks they are not able to do. Any one of these things, even if seemingly insignificant, can lead to accidents, injuries, and even fatalities in the worst situations.
If you can show that your employer’s negligence contributed to your freezer accident, the Jones Act provides compensation for your medical bills, your lost wages, and other intangibles, like pain and suffering. It also ensures that if you die, your dependent loved ones have access to the same compensation. To help you determine your rights, to decide if you qualify for the Jones Act and if you have a case, and to file a claim for compensation, consult with an experienced, professional maritime attorney.