The fishing industry may have injury rates almost double the provincial average, but CBC Investigates has found that on-board provincial occupational health and safety inspections (OHS) are few and far between.

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According to the Transportation Safety Board, there are roughly 6,000 commercial fishing vessels operating in Newfoundland and Labrador.

But just 38 safety inspections were carried out in the past three years, according to provincial figures obtained using access to information. That's about a dozen a year, or one a month.

Service NL Minister Dan Crummell, whose department encompasses OHS, says inspectors can't be everywhere.

"There can't be a police officer in every corner,” he said. “There can't be a fire truck on every block. There can't be an occupational health and safety officer on every boat.”

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Dan Crummell is the minister of Service NL, which includes the occupational health and safety branch. (CBC)

​Crummell says there are a total of 20 inspectors to keep tabs on every workplace in every industry in the province, with funding for two more officers announced in the recent budget.

He notes that $500,000 has been set aside for a new fish harvesting safety association to assist with education and awareness.

The minister says the fishery is a unique industry with its own set of challenges.

"Inspecting workplaces on the land, it's a lot easier,” Crummell said. “You can go to where the workers are working. When you're inspecting workplaces on boats, it's a little bit different. The only time you can really get to them is when they're dockside and the work is pretty much done."

2012 fatal accident at sea

CBC Investigates asked for the onboard inspection statistics for the entire industry in the wake of a Transportation Safety Board probe into a fatal industrial accident at sea.

The tragedy aboard the Katsheshuk II in February 2012 claimed the life of 25-year-old Aaron Cull of St. Anthony. The accident happened in the hold of the factory-freezer trawler while it was steaming home to Bay Roberts with a load of shrimp.

Katsheshuk II in St. John's in 2008

A 25-year-old man died on board the Katsheshuk II when a steel door closed on him as he was leaving a shrimp holding tank. (Courtesy Nikolaj Petersen/Shipspotting)

The Transportation Safety Board report concluded that while there was a safety plan in place, it was rarely followed.

And while there were two other potentially serious safety incidents aboard the vessel in 2006 and 2010, the ship was never audited or visited by provincial occupational health and safety inspectors.

Cull was the factory foreman on the vessel. He had just inspected the cleaning of a shrimp holding tank, and was exiting the tank when a small steel door closed on his neck.

The report found that a worker accidently bumped a lever that closed the door. But it also concluded there were several things that could've been done to prevent that from happening.

Neither man had been trained in the operations of the factory on the ship. As well, a spring that would've stopped the door from closing all the way had been broken for about six months. Some crewmembers were aware of that, but never reported it.

"While there was an orientation for all new crewmembers, it didn't capture the work involved in the factory," TSB investigator Chris Morrow told CBC Investigates.

"Some of the risks that were evident down there weren't really paid much attention to. If you go through accident records and near misses, they identified some on board, but they weren't really dealt with in a meaningful way."

Morrow said orientation and training for crewmembers have since been improved.

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Chris Morrow is a senior investigator with the federal Transportation Safety Board. (CBC)

As for provincial inspection statistics, he said the current number is actually an improvement over past years.

Morrow emphasized that such on-board inspections trump paper audits any day.

"They are important,” he said. “It's hard to get a grasp of what some of the paperwork is talking about. They would have to send in accident reports, and to get a grasp of what really could be done to mitigate that risk is pretty difficult without having an on-site visit."

Both Katsheshuk Fisheries and Ocean Choice International were charged with numerous occupational health and safety violations after the 2012 death.

Charges against OCI have since been withdrawn, although the case against Katsheshuk Fisheries is proceeding through provincial court.

‘Safety has got to be a primary concern’ 

Crummell insists reducing workplace accidents isn't just government's responsibility; he says industry, workers, and their employers must also bear some of the responsibility.

"My sense is everybody, again, wants to come home to their families at the end of the day. And safety has got to be a primary concern when you're working in these high-risk environments."

Crummell dismisses the suggestion that cash is an issue.

"I don't think there's anybody out there that thinks that safety costs money," he said.

"Without safety, that costs money. For somebody to get injured, for somebody — in the worst-case scenario — to die ... that costs money."