The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) recently released the findings of its investigation into a fatal man overboard accident aboard the lobster fishing vessel Cock-a-Wit Lady off Clark’s Harbour, N.S. on Nov. 2015.

The TSB ruled that ineffective risk management and emergency unpreparedness led to the drowning. These findings draw attention to a wide range of safety hazards the TSB says persist in the commercial fishing industry.

The Board notes failure to implement pro-active systems of on-board risk management as part of routine fishing vessel operations increases the likelihood of crew members being unprepared to effectively mitigate on-board hazards. Fishing safety has been on the TSB watchlist since 2010 and these same risks were identified in the agency’s 2012 “Safety Issues Investigation into Fishing Safety in Canada” report.

The agency notes several recent investigations into fatal accidents on commercial fishing vessels have identified a range of safety deficiencies in the industry, including insufficient vessel stability, inadequate crew training, unsafe operating practices, lack of emergency preparedness and slackness about having immersion suits and emergency position-indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) onboard — issues that if addressed would reduce fatalities.

Fishing is one of the few Canadian occupations for which no formal training is required to enter the industry. Yet fishers are often obliged to perform multiple tasks using types of gear and machinery that are inherently dangerous, and in the operation of which they may have limited or no training.

The TSB is an independent agency that investigates marine, pipeline, railway and aviation transportation ‘occurrences.’ It points out that if fishing vessel operators fail to implement on-board risk management systems, the risks are greater that fishers won’t be prepared to address actual emergencies effectively. Risk management solutions can be as simple as regular crew safety meetings, or conducting drills to provide crew with an opportunity to identify shortcomings in emergency situations, such as responding to a man overboard.

Commercial fishing has long had the unwelcome distinction of being statistically the world’s most dangerous occupation. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), on average more than 70 people die every day fishing at sea. That’s an estimated 24,000 deaths annually among roughly 15 million fishers employed in capture fisheries worldwide.

In the United States, on-the-job fatality rates among fishers are significantly higher than the national average for other occupations, e.g.: eight times greater than among persons who operate motor vehicles for a living; 16 times that of persons working in occupations such as firefighting and law enforcement; and more than 40 times the national average.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) concurs that commercial fishing is the most dangerous livelihood in America, beating out timber cutting and logging, with roughly 152 of every 100,000 fishers killed on the job in the country annually.

In Italy, another advanced G7 country, the commercial fishing fatality rate is more than 21 times the national average for all occupations. In Denmark it’s 25 to 30 times higher than for those employed on land.

In this country, the TSB notes that even though numbers of registered fishers and active fishing vessels have declined overall since 2006, the average number of fatalities has remained constant at approximately 10 per year. That may sound low compared with the global rate of 70 deaths per day in the industry, but it’s out of a relatively modest number of fewer than 50,000 commercial fishers across the country, registered by either DFO, Bureau d’accréditation des pêcheurs et des aides-r du Québec (BAPAP) or the Professional Fish Harvesters Certification Board (PFHCB).

A greater level of risk is of course unavoidable in pursuit of a livelihood conducted in an environment inherently inhospitable to humans, often in hostile weather, on a platform that’s usually in motion, sharing cramped quarters with potentially dangerous machinery, nets and lines, and far away from emergency medical attention. Given these realities, commercial fishing can never be made as safe as, say, working in an office cubicle, behind a counter, doing factory work or even in relatively hazardous land-based industries such as logging, mining or farming.

However the TSB, which has long sought to improve commercial fishing safety, is convinced it could be safer. It has designated commercial fishing safety a watchlist priority and says the loss of life on fishing vessels nationwide “is simply too great.” The Board says an ongoing problem is that while excellent safety regulations can be enacted, they do little good if they’re not taken seriously or ignored in practice.

Likewise, the finest safety gear in the world will be of no help if it’s not used. Going overboard and drowning or dying of hypothermia is the largest cause of commercial fishing fatalities and the TSB notes, “there are still gaps remaining with respect to, among other things, unsafe operating practices and crew training.”

The TSB watchlist says new regulations need to be implemented for commercial fishing vessels of all sizes, including user-friendly guidelines regarding vessel stability, developed and implemented to reduce unsafe practices. It also says behavioural changes among fishers are needed regarding use of personal flotation devices, EPIRBs and survival suits, along with carrying out on-board safety drills and risk assessments.

A Canadian committee on fishing safety observed, “Whether as a result of the rugged individualism, which typifies the industry, or an apparent discomfort with the educational setting, there seems to be a natural reluctance on the part of fishermen to submit themselves to a formal training process.” The FAO report observes that “fishermen’s reluctance to attend safety courses is a serious cause of concern,” and that “fishermen often seem neither aware of, nor willing to admit, the risks inherent in their occupation.”

A British Columbia Worker’s Compensation Board report says: “fishermen have established a pattern of denial and trivialization as part of their occupational subculture… in order to relieve the psychological pressures that occur when they are forced to constantly face the reality of the dangers of their occupation.”

It appears a substantial shift in attitudes toward safety in the industry itself will be required in order to better manage and diminish risks inherent to commercial fishing activity. The TSB urges a concerted and coordinated initiative by federal and provincial authorities, fishing industry leaders and fishers themselves to participate in the nurture and development of a robust safety culture in the commercial fishing community.