Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. regulators watching closely as B.C. requires life jackets on fishing vessels

Fishers in British Columbia now have to wear life jackets on the decks of fishing vessels, and safety advocates and regulators in N.L. are taking note.

Issue on radar for Occupational Health and Safety in N.L.

Mark Dolomount, executive director of the Professional Fish Harvester's Certification Board, wears a Mullion life jacket. Brenda Greenslade of the N.L. Fish Harvester Safety Association holds a personal locator beacon similar to the one found inside the life jacket. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Fishers in British Columbia now have a clear directive when it comes to life jackets: they must be worn on decks of fishing vessels. That regulation change is getting attention in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Pat Olsen, prevention field services manager with Work Safe B.C., says commercial fishing in the westernmost province has a high fatality rate. 

"Between 2007 and 2013, we had 24 work related deaths in commercial fishing and 15 of those were actually related to drowning," Olsen said.

"We felt there was a need to focus on getting fishermen to wear [personal floatation devices] and we moved ahead with this regulation."

The change is actually an amendment to an existing regulation that required crew members to wear PFDs "when working under conditions that involved a risk of drowning."

Regulation open to interpretation

Olsen said the wording was too ambiguous. 

"That left it open to quite a bit of interpretation among fishermen. Some people's risk tolerance, I guess, might be greater than others," he said.  

The amendment comes after recommendations from the Transportation Safety Board following the fatal capsizing of the fishing vessel Caledonian near Tofino, B.C. in 2015.

Three crew members died in that accident. The only survivor was wearing a life jacket.

Work Safe B.C. has clarified the language, and the regulation now says crew members are required to wear personal floatation devices on decks of fishing vessels.

So far, harvesters are reacting favourably.

"What we're hearing is that fishermen just wanted to be told — do I have to wear one or don't I?" Olsen said.

Similar wording in N.L.

The amended regulation in B.C. has safety advocates in Newfoundland and Labrador talking.

Over the past decade, Workplace N.L. has had reports of 13 fatalities due to drowning in the fishing industry, and the current regulations in the province have a similarly vague wording: "Where a worker is employed under conditions which expose him or her to a risk of drowning, he or she shall wear a personal floatation device appropriate to the work environment and hazards."

Brenda Greenslade, executive director of Newfoundland and Labrador's Fish Harvesting Safety Association, said her organization is always interested in best practices when it comes to safety.

Brenda Greenslade is the Executive Director of N.L.'s Fish Harvester Safety Association. (Jane Adey/CBC)

But Greenslade said she'd like to see harvesters also take initiative when it comes to safety on the water.

"[I would like] for people to be accountable, first and foremost, for their own health and safety," explained Greenslade.

"As opposed to [being] reliant on an officer from Transport Canada or from the Occupational Health and Safety division to go out and to say 'this is what you must do to protect your own health and safety.'"

Service NL, the government department that oversees Occupational Health and Safety, is willing to explore ways to make things safer. 

"We are always open to hearing from stakeholders with any advice on how to strengthen legislation to further promote safe work practices," reads a statement from the department.

"This is an issue that will be addressed at the next meeting of the Advisory Council on Occupational Health and Safety, and we will be seeking their views on the issue that has been raised."

Life jackets don't meet fishers' needs

Just as rules around wearing PFDs are evolving so too are the PFDs themselves.

Greenslade said she hears lots of complaints from harvesters who say the life jackets on the market now don't meet their needs.

Everything from issues with inflation pull cords that get caught and accidentally inflate vests while fishers are hauling gear to jackets that just aren't suited for female harvesters.

"I've had women tell me that it doesn't fit. It's not comfortable for them. It rides up. They can't get one to fit their body type and it's a very valid comment," said Greenslade. 

This life jacket is made by a Belgian company called Mullion. It's smaller than most of the current models used by fish harvesters and boaters in Canada. It hasn't been approved for use in Canada. It is in use in the United Kingdom. (Jane Adey/CBC)

The Newfoundland and Labrador Fish Harvesting Safety Association has been doing some research to find designs that might prompt more harvesters to wear life jackets.

The one they like most is a PFD with a personal locator beacon about half the size of vests commonly worn in the province today, made in Belgium by a company called Mullion. 

But the Mullion life jacket isn't available to harvesters in Canada — the federal government has yet to approve it.

"It will take lobbying, basically, on several fronts. It will also require knowledge of our stakeholders or advisory committees to be aware of it and lobbying on the part of fish harvesters," explained Greenslade. 

Change in attitudes necessary

And while changes in life jackets and changes in regulations may help save lives, the real work, admits Greenslade, is changing attitudes.

She said she's spoken with far too many harvesters with a false sense of security.

"People … will say, well, I've been at this a long time. Nothing's ever happened to me."

Greenslade said her group likes to direct their safety message at entire families.

"Husbands, wives, parents, children, friends, colleagues, they all can be very influential in helping to change behaviour," she said.

 Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador