A litany of failings contributed to a Far North fishing tragedy where a young deckhand was dragged to his death.
Mark Elder, 26, was killed on February 5 after getting caught up in ropes whilst shooting creels on the North Star off Cape Wrath.
A Marine Accident Investigation Branch report, published today, said Mr Elder’s death was a result of nothing to stop the fisherman from becoming entangled.
The report states: “[Mark] was in an extremely precarious position that relied on his ability to keep his feet on the deck. In the rough seas, North Star was moving violently and, given the rate at which the creels were being shot, Mark is likely to have been more focused on toggling the creels on to the leg ropes rather than on keeping his feet flat on deck.”
The 60ft North Star, owned by Scrabster Seafoods Limited, was working in rough seas 16 nautical miles north of Cape Wrath when the incident occurred.
The captain of the vessel requested the assistance of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s (MCA) search and rescue helicopter from Stornoway after Mr Elder was dragged overboard at around 6.15pm.
Mr Elder was submerged in the 10-degree water for around 10 minutes before his crewmates were able to retrieve him, where he was found to be unresponsive and unconscious.
His frantic fellow crewmen spent over an hour performing CPR but were unable to revive him.
The vessel then set sail for Scrabster Harbour, eventually arriving in port shortly after 3am the following day. Mr Elder was confirmed dead at 4.30am.
The report continued: “The MAIB investigation found that the vessel’s documented risk controls did not reflect the operational practice on board, and that the crew underestimated the risks associated with a crewman becoming entangled in the back rope and being dragged overboard.
“Shooting operations did not follow published industry best practice to effectively physically separate the crew from the back rope and to have knives at hand.”
The MAIB also refused to rule out that cannabis could have contributed to the accident after traces of the drug were found in his system post-mortem.
The report added: “It is difficult to state with any degree of confidence what effects, if any, Mark was experiencing from the drug at the time of the accident.”
Recommendations have been made to Scrabster Seafoods to enhance the overall safety of its crews, and to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to improve the support and guidance given to commercial fishing vessel owners.
Scrabster Seafoods has reviewed its risk assessments and installed a physical barrier to better enhance the safety of its crew. Crew members have also received enhanced safety training and been provided with personal flotation devices.
As a result of the accident the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has issued safety advice to members of the fishing industry.
Five main safety lessons were highlighted in the flyer that was distributed to members of the industry.
- Shooting creels manually is inherently hazardous as crew are often working in close proximity to running ropes, which present a risk of entanglement. While shooting operations must often be completed by hand, it is crucial that a safe system of work is developed, preferably one that effectively physically separates the crew from the ropes.
- A sharp knife should be positioned such that it can be accessed readily. Had the crewman been carrying a knife, or if one had been readily available on the working deck, there might have been an opportunity for the crewman to be freed from the back rope before he was dragged overboard.
- Once the crewman had entered the water, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to free himself before drowning. However, had he been able to do so, the wearing of a Personal Flotation Device would have improved his chances of survival in the cold conditions.
- Risk assessments are a useful way of ensuring that working practices take into consideration all identifiable hazards. However, they must reflect the operational practice on board and industry best practice. The crew should all be aware of the contents of the risk assessment for each operation, and comply with the applicable documented risk controls. Only then can the full value of a risk assessment be realized.
- It is essential that owners and skippers are proactive in identifying the regulatory requirements and industry best practice applicable to their fishing operations, and that individual roles and responsibilities for implementing the vessel’s health and safety policy are clearly assigned.