Fishing trawlers are among the most dangerous workplaces in the world. The commercial fishing industry is the most dangerous to work in, with more injuries and fatalities from accidents than in any other type of work, in any industry. There are several reasons that this type of work is so hazardous, from rough waters to falls overboard to freezing cold weather, and heavy, complicated, and dangerous equipment. The winch aboard fishing trawlers is just one of many of these sources of risk for fishermen.
Commercial fishermen work with heavy equipment every day, including the winch that is used to haul the catch aboard. A trawl winch can cause serious accidents if not working properly, if misused, or if a worker makes a misstep while working with it. Too many of these accidents lead to serious injuries for workers and even to fatalities. There may be genuine accidents, where everyone did everything right, but too often, accidents are preventable. If you work with a trawl winch, know your rights in the event of an accident and rely on a professional maritime attorney to guide you through any claims.
Rate of Accidents with Winches
Trawl winches are used on many types of commercial fishing boats including seiners and trawlers. A winch is a mechanical piece of equipment that is used to wind in fishing nets or let them out. It acts to adjust the tension in a rope or line to make the net or other type of fishing equipment move up toward the boat or to let it out into the water. Simple hand crank winches are used on recreational fishing boats, but for larger commercial vessels winches are bigger and powered by a motor. These are especially dangerous to work with, especially for workers who don’t have experience or training.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), commercial fishing has the greatest number of fatalities of any industry. The CDC investigated the contribution of winches to both fatalities and injuries by looking at all fishing accidents in shrimping boats from 2000 to 2011. The results showed that there were 35 accidents with winches during that time, eight of which were fatal. The results also determined that accidents involving the drum, or spool, of the winch were most likely to lead to deaths.
Nearly half of the accidents, including both those that were fatal and those that were non-fatal, included an article of clothing getting caught in the equipment, a terrifying situation for any worker. In another study of a different group of fishermen and vessels in the commercial fishing industry, it was found that about one-quarter of accidents involved a winch or ropes and lines.
Common Accidents and Injuries
There are a few different types of accidents that can occur on a fishing trawler involving the winch. A common type of incident is when a worker gets caught or tangled in the equipment. The action of the winch causes lines and nets to move quickly, and a worker standing in the wrong spot at the wrong time can get caught up in the ropes or net, get tangled, and get hurt by the lines or get dragged overboard.
Workers can also get caught or entangled in the winch itself. This usually starts with a loose article of clothing catching in the winch. These incidents lead to the most serious injuries and to deaths. Any loose bit of clothing can get caught in the equipment, especially in windy or rough conditions when the ship is moving around and an otherwise careful worker ends up too close to the winch.
Examples of Winch Accidents
In one tragic example of a fishing trawl winch accident, a worker died aboard a vessel in the English Channel in 2011. The worker had stopped working to disentangle a hose from a net that was being hauled aboard the fishing vessel. Another worker made a hand signal that was misinterpreted by those operating the winch. They began to haul in the fishing equipment while the worker stood on the net working on the tangled parts. He got trapped between the net and the winch and died from his injuries. A simple miscommunication led to the death of a worker.
In a non-fatal, but still tragic incident that occurred in 2013, a young worker lost his hand in a winch accident. The junior deckhand, still in his teens was working off the coast of the United Kingdom aboard a scallop dredger. His hand became caught in the winch. Attempts to save it were unsuccessful and his hand needed to be amputated. This incident highlights the role that inexperience can play in such accidents. Although this could happen to any worker, the young man’s lack of experience is likely to have played a role in his accident.
Causes of Accidents
Working with winches is inherently risky, with even the most experienced seamen in danger of getting caught in them accidentally, but most accidents are preventable. The most common cause of accidents with winches is clothing being snagged in the machinery. This could be prevented by workers being trained to understand what clothing is appropriate to wear and how to wear it. Loose articles of clothing, like ill-fitting gloves or a coat that is not buttoned or zipped up, can easily get caught. Employers are responsible for ensuring workers have the right kind of clothes, and that they know the risks of getting clothing too close to the winch.
Accidents are also caused by poorly maintained equipment and poorly trained workers. If the equipment is not working correctly it can cause accidents and injuries. If workers don’t know how to use the equipment they may make serious errors that lead to injuries. Workers should also be trained to know where to stand to avoid getting caught in nets and lines. They also need training in communication to be sure that the winch can be stopped in an emergency or to warn each other when they are in harm’s way.
Rights under Maritime Law
If you work as a commercial fisherman you have rights according to maritime law. These include the right to compensation if you are injured or for compensation for your dependent loved ones if you die at work. Whether or not negligence is involved you have a right to money to cover your medical bills and to provide for your living expenses if you cannot work for a period of time due to your injuries, thanks to maintenance and cure. You shouldn’t have to file a claim for this. If you are out of work for a period of time because of an on-the-job accident, that coverage is your right.
If you qualify as a seaman and you can prove that your employer was negligent in your injuries, you may be entitled to even more compensation through the Jones Act. This law provides for money to cover lost wages, lost future earnings, and pain and suffering for you or for your loved ones in the worst case scenario. If you aren’t sure where you stand or what your rights are, you can rely on a maritime lawyer to help you navigate the often-confusing world of maritime law.