A federal initiative to improve safety on fishing vessels remains voluntary, despite being repeatedly flagged by the Transportation Safety Board, which believes it should be made mandatory.

CBC Investigates logo CBC

The TSB has stressed the importance of safety management systems (SMS) for nearly 15 years, usually through accident reports.

An SMS is essentially an exhaustive checklist of procedures drawn up by a ship's owner, in concert with the skipper and crew. It includes everything from where the ship operates and every job and function on board, to keeping records of all those activities, and the risks involved.

It is mandatory for large vessels in international waters, but not for ships that operate domestically in Canada, including the hundreds of passenger and commercial vessels over 500 tonnes.

On watchlist

The TSB continues to include that fact on its annual watchlist of issues that pose the greatest risk to Canadians when it comes to transportation.

It was also a key focus of the TSB report into the death of a crewmember on the Katsheshuk II off northeast Newfoundland two years ago.

A spokesperson for Transport Canada, which is primarily responsible for the seaworthiness of vessels, will only say the department is continuing consultations toward making SMS mandatory. But until then, they "encourage" vessel owners and operators to develop their own.

That's exactly what the owners of the Katsheshuk II did back in 2007.

But the TSB has since found that virtually none of the items in their SMS were being followed prior to the death of 25-year-old Aaron Cull of St. Anthony in February 2012. 

Cull, the factory foreman on the ship, had just inspected the cleaning of a shrimp holding tank. He was crawling out through the square opening when a small shutter door closed on his neck, killing him.

chris morrow-20140404

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

​The TSB report noted that the voluntary SMS on the ship was not effective at identifying the risks and unsafe practices associated with the operation of the shutter doors. 

"Due to the way it was implemented and follow-ups, it didn't prevent this accident, which it was intended to do," TSB investigator Chris Morrow said.

The TSB report found that the crew did not understand the principles of hazard assessments, nor had they received any training.

Despite that, the vessel had qualified for a provincial Workplace Health and Safety Compensation Commission (WHSCC) program that gives owners a break on insurance premiums in return for good safety practices. It's known as the Prevention and Return-to-Work Insurance Management for Employers/Employees, or PRIME.

According to the TSB, the Katsheshuk II qualified in 2007, despite a potentially serious safety incident the year before, and re-qualified again in 2010 when there was another close call on the ship.

A spokesperson for WHSCC would not say if the vessel still qualifies for PRIME, adding that they do not provide specific information about clients.

The TSB noted the ship had previously qualified without ever being visited by anyone from WHSCC, which is not required. The province oversees fishing activities, but another wing of the government, Service NL, is responsible for workplace safety inspections. Those never happened on the Katsheshuk either.

The TSB also said WHSCC advisors "had limited knowledge of these types of fishing vessels."

The federal agency questioned how the Katsheshuk qualified for the insurance program.

"This process covered only the documents, meeting minutes, and various forms that were filled out, making it essentially a paper audit for the sole purpose of qualifying for PRIME," the TSB noted in its report.

Sample required

Only a sample of safe work practices were needed to qualify, but the TSB said they weren't easy to find.

"Very few, if any, safe work procedures existed for factory operations, and no mention was made of the various pieces of machinery and hydraulics in the factory. The vessel's senior officers did not attend safety meetings, safe work practices in the factory were unaddressed, and orientation for new crew did not include safe work practices in the factory."

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

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