The fishing industry is a dangerous one. Just ask Basil Goodyear of Lumsden, who’s been fishing for 13 years.
He fishes on a 55-foot longliner, dealing mostly with shrimp and crab. He also represents fishermen on the northeast coast of Newfoundland in the Fish, Food and Allied Workers’ (FFAW) union.
Last week, when the provincial government and the Workplace, Health, Safety and Compensation Commission announced funding to establish a Fish Harvesting Safety Association and a Fish Processing Sector Safety Council, Goodyear said, while safety regulations are important, adhering to them can be a challenge for fishermen with smaller vessels.
He said the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans already has a number of regulations, and boats over 45 feet are subject to rigorous inspections every four years by the Canadian Coast Guard. Goodyear said these inspections can result in costs of thousands of dollars in safety upgrades, including lifeboat and survival suit upgrades, replacing expired flares and rockets, and making sure the boat’s hardware is up to code and free of possible safety hazards.
While this is fine for larger boats, he said, on many smaller boats, safety takes a backseat.
“Some of the smaller boats that are fishing 25 and 30 miles offshore, I can see some major safety issues with them. Because they don’t fall under coast guard guidelines, they’ve got no one inspecting their boats,” said Goodyear. “Some of the boats have one pump, one radio and one battery, so if something goes wrong and the battery goes down you have no radio and no pump.”
He believes larger boats are already over-regulated, and says smaller boats — which are at the greatest risk — just don’t have the revenue to spend thousands of dollars on safety upgrades.
“Because of the restriction on the amount of fish you can catch, you are restricted in your revenues, and on smaller boats if you don’t have the revenue, you can’t keep up with the safety,” Goodyear said.
“Most people are more concerned with paying the bills than they are with safety.”
He said until the government releases more information as to what the safety councils will entail, he doesn’t know if they will solve anything.
“If the government wants to spend a million dollars, then spend a million dollars, but don’t come back with more bills and more and more regulations for fishermen, because this industry is already over-regulated,” he said.
“Yes, I can see lots of changes that need to be made, but when it comes down to the dollars and cents, that’s really what’s going to matter to a lot of fishermen. ... They just don’t have the money to make the changes they need to their boats.”
On the processing side, there’s a whole different safety story.
Paul Kean of Lumsden has been an employee with Valleyfield Beothic Fish Plant for 23 years. He’s also on the executive board of the FFAW for the processing side of the fishing industry, representing fish plant workers on the northeast coast. He’s served on health and safety boards, and says he’s personally dedicated to improving health and safety for workers in the fishing industry.
Employees have been fighting for more rigid safety regulations in processing plants for years, he said, due to a number of health hazards that plague plant workers.
The two main health issues for employees in his sector is shellfish asthma, caused by airborne contaminates in the processing of shrimp and crab, and ergonomic problems caused by soft-tissue damage from standing on concrete floors for long hours doing repetitive motions.
Kean said when workers have voiced their concerns to plant management, they’ve often been met with resistance.
“For years, doctors have said, ‘You’re taking years off your life by working in these conditions,’” he said. “With the airborne contaminates, yes, you may only be working six or seven months out of a year, but when the damage is done to your lungs it does not go away.”
Kean said about half of all plant workers are using medication or inhalers to get through their day’s work, and some have had their lungs damaged so badly that they’ve been told by doctors they can’t return to work safely without an oxygen tank.
Ergonomic issues can also lead to big problems.
“You’re spending eight or nine hours a day standing on a concrete floor in a cold environment. It takes a toll on your body,” he said. “And over a period of time, this, combined with repetitive motions, can cause a lot of problems with soft-tissue damage, and you have injuries in the neck and back, that sort of thing.”
According to Kean, 55 per cent of workers’ compensation claims are related to soft-tissue injuries, and because of the cost to the companies and the government for people who are receiving workers ‘compensation, addressing these issues would be beneficial for plants and workers.
He said he would like to see better ventilation and more ergonomically designed work stations become a standard for all fish plants in the province, and see these regulations strictly enforced. He hopes the new safety council will be a catalyst for long-needed change.
“We need to make sure our workplaces are healthy and safe for our workers, so at the end of their career they can retire and go home to their families and not be taking with them illnesses or diseases that cause pain and shorter lifespans from working somewhere all their life,” Kean said.
“Being ignored because they’re only working for a seasonal industry, that’s not acceptable. Any money spent by the government with respect to making working conditions better and safer for workers is money well spent.”