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Safety net: The RNLI's work with commercial fishermen

Thanks to your support, the RNLI is helping to make the seas a safer place for the people who put fish on our tables.

Safety net: The RNLI's work with commercial fishermen

Commercial fishing in the cold, rough seas around the UK and Republic of Ireland is a hazardous profession. Pushing their boats ever further out in search of a catch, the men and women who supply us with freshly caught seafood risk accident and injury every time they do their jobs. For many commercial fishermen, tragedies at sea seem inevitable – but are they?

RNLI analysis shows time and time again that many of the common causes of death and injury – including fires, equipment failure, man overboards, leaks and swamping – need not have occurred.

Sheryll Murray MP
Sheryll Murray MP

Sheryll Murray is MP for South East Cornwall, and knows all too well that changes – some of them pretty simple – are needed to make the industry safer. In March 2011, her husband Neil didn’t come home from his fishing trip. His body was eventually discovered onboard his boat Our Boy Andrew, where he had been crushed to death by machinery.

‘A toggle on Neil’s oilskin jacket got snagged in a hydraulic net drum, and he couldn’t turn the mechanism off,’ explains Sheryll. ‘If Neil had had a safety stop button within reach, or if fishermen’s jackets didn’t come with toggles, maybe things would have been different.

‘Safety is a massive issue in this industry and it’s getting a little better. But with complacency comes an increased rate of accidents, so we need to keep the reminders coming. You may do something onboard your boat 100 times with no problems, but if you’re not paying attention, that 101st time could be a completely different outcome.’

The RNLI's safety campaigns aim to protect the crews who put seafood on your plate

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The RNLI's safety campaigns aim to protect the crews who put seafood on your plate

This year, reducing deck machinery incidents is an all-important part of the RNLI’s target – to halve the number of coastal deaths by 2024. It’s one of many several ways that we are working with commercial fishing crews to make changes.

Frankie Horne is the RNLI’s fishing safety manager, and a volunteer crew member at Peel Lifeboat Station. He helped deliver our new deck machinery safety campaign to the Fisheries All-Party Parliamentary Group in January. A day later he was reminded why the campaign is so vital: ‘What happened really shows why we’re running this safety initiative,’ says Frankie.

‘We launched the campaign on Monday, and on Wednesday I was at the House of Commons presenting the campaign to politicians, who were so impressed and supportive. Less than 24 hours later, I was at a fishing port giving first aid to a fisherman who had suffered a deck machinery injury.

‘It is an incredible coincidence – but it shows how important our campaign is, trying to reduce incidents just like this one.’

Three focus areas

Personal flotation devices (PFDs)

Problem: A shocking 76% of fishermen who died between 2010 and 2013 weren’t wearing a lifejacket or buoyancy aid – it’s just not common practice on a lot of boats. In many cases, wearing a PFD could have saved the victim’s life.

Solution: The RNLI’s Community Safety team have started training fishermen on how to use the free personal flotation devices (PFDs) being given out by Seafish’s Sea You Home Safe campaign – a collaboration between major industry bodies. The shared aim is to equip all 12,500+ fishermen in the UK with a PFD and training that covers how and why they should wear the devices, and how to maintain them.

Boat stability

Problem: Of the 49 commercial fishermen who died at work between 2009 to 2012, 34% were killed when their vessel capsized. These disastrous events are often caused by leaking or swamping. By promoting greater awareness of these hazards, and how to avoid them, more fishing crews will make it home this year and in the future.

Solution: We produced a series of five short films providing practical, easy-to-follow advice on how to make fishing boats more stable. This covered topics like how to haul in a catch without unbalancing a boat, and how to check that everything onboard is watertight. The campaign hit the media in Winter 2015, and at the time of writing, the films had been watched more than 6,000 times.

Deck machinery

Problem: The kit onboard a fishing vessel is expensive, and many crews ‘make do’, mend, or replace their broken machinery with kit that’s not always in line with modern safety standards. On top of that, crew training isn’t always as comprehensive as it could be. In fact, 88 people have been injured or killed in deck machinery incidents on fishing vessels in UK waters in the past 5 years.

Solution: We’re working together with other organisations, including Seafish in the UK, to make it easier for commercial fishing crews to apply for new EU funding that could help them buy safer equipment.

RNLI volunteers work to keep fishermen safe in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC documentary on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.