FISH SAFE – Winch safety study identifies crew hazards

by Ann Backus –

Jan. 27 will mark five years since 53-year-old Bill Meldrum died off the coast of New Jersey aboard the 65′ Lydia J after being pulled into his vessel’s rotating drum winch.  After that incident, I was determined that no one else would suffer that kind of death.  In 2012, my colleagues and I at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) were awarded a five-year grant to study winch safety on trawlers in the Northeast.

As part of a survey, Joe Destefano of HSPH and Fred Mattera, safety trainer and author of CFN’s “SAFE BOAT – SMART BOAT” column, collected data on 54 vessels from Gloucester, New Bedford, Point Judith, and Martha’s Vineyard.backus-SH

Preliminary results indicate that the captains and crews of the trawler fleet are very experienced.  The average age across those interviewed was 32.4 years.  For individual vessels, the average crew experience was 18.3 years.  While the average crew size was 3.3 individuals, eight of the vessels (15%) reported that only one fisherman is typically onboard.  All of the winches on the vessels in the survey were hydraulically powered.

Among the hazards associated with drum winches are:  the presence of uninspected equipment such as frayed cables or inoperable shutoffs; fishermen not knowing how to operate the winch safely; fishermen being pulled into the winch during winding operations; and the absence of an emergency shutoff, called PTO in some ports, within easy reach of the drum operator.

When asked about the practices of other fishermen, about 50% of the captains we interviewed believed that their fellow captains probably do not inspect their winch-related safety equipment.  Only 65% of those interviewed thought that their fellow captains conducted onboard safety drills.  A similar percentage (63%) of captains said that they have “rules” or administrative protocols to keep crewmembers away from active winches.

Our preliminary data show that small boats, meaning those under 70′ in length, are more than twice as likely not to have administrative protocols as large boats.


Haul-back hazards

Hauling back a net full of fish requires winding hundreds of fathoms of cable onto the winch drum and making sure it winds level, not bunched up at the sides.

Fishermen commonly use three procedures to accomplish this level-winding operation:  manually guiding the wire; mechanically guiding; and no guiding.

Manually guiding the wire requires that a crewmember stand in front of the drum and move a metal rod from one hole in a metal plate to the next to ensure that the wire winds evenly along the drum axis.  This creates a dangerous situation.  Of the captains we interviewed, 35% reported using the manual wind approach.

Of the remaining 65% of vessels, 35% use a mechanical level-wind system, usually hydraulic.  These systems are typically found on small to medium size fishing vessels.  This approach increases the safety of drum winch operations because crewmembers do not need to be in the immediate winch/hauling area.

Finally, 30% of the vessels do not employ either manual or mechanical level winding.  These are the larger – over 70′ – vessels.  For example, we did not find any trawlers in New Bedford using a mechanical level-wind system.

There may be several reasons why New Bedford trawlers do not use mechanical level winders.  Most of the winches on these vessels are mounted on the pilothouse deck, and the wind can be achieved by maneuvering the boat.  Also, it is possible that because a large boat has large nets and very long cables, the mass of the cables results in an even lay without assistance.

So, what are the next steps for improving level-winding operations?  We have talked to several fabricators who have designed hydraulic level winders.  They believe that keeping crewmembers away from the winch is key to reducing the risk of entrapment in the winch and, therefore, key to reducing the potential for injuries and fatalities.

We invite fabricators in New England to contact us if they have designed or manufactured hydraulic level winders or have opinions about potential risk reduction with their use.

In the March 2014 edition of CFN, we will discuss emergency shutoffs.


Ann Backus, MS, is the director of outreach for the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health in Boston, MA.  She may be reached by phone at (617) 432-3327 or by e-mail at <abackus@hsph.harvard.edu>.