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III. Safety training

Effective approaches to safety at sea everywhere in the world and at all levels, rely on three lines of defence:

The importance of quality training in reducing loss of life through prevention and survival of accidents, as well as in reducing SAR costs, cannot be over-emphasized. The main constraints to the provision of good training are the costs involved and the lack of mandatory requirements. Further, institutions providing safety training are frequently faced with distrust and resistance from the industry, though experience has shown that these can be overcome if the training and the trainers are seen to have specialized relevance and knowledge not only of the safety issues, but also of the fisheries directly relevant to the trainees, of the local community and its particular problems.


Even if all relevant international conventions were extended to include fisheries, ratified by sufficient numbers of countries and implemented and enforced in laws and regulations at national levels, a safe working environment could not be ensured without community participation. Measures to improve safety can only be truly effective where the motivation to apply them exists. To establish and maintain such a culture of safety is a never-ending task that demands the participation of the fishermen themselves and their families, the boat-owners, the legislators and the community at large. In many countries, fishermen's self-help groups or other NGOs have established fruitful cooperation with the authorities to promote safety in their communities.

Danger has always been an integral part of the working environment on merchant and fishing vessels, and, it seems, accepted as such. With the rapid expansion of the fleets during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and as vessels ventured further into unknown waters, catastrophes involving great numbers of seafarers occurred more often, forcing the public to become aware of the problem. Gradually, this led to organized efforts to remedy the situation: light-houses were erected, maps of coastal waters were improved, harbours were built and organized search and rescue systems were established. Emergency huts manned by members of voluntary coast guards, were erected in strategic places, containing a boat and the equipment necessary to come to the aid of ships in danger.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, safety equipment on board vessels was scant. Even on board an oceanliner like the SS Titanic, life rafts and boats were only provided for a fraction of those on board. The Titanic disaster continues to attract worldwide attention and led to the first international treaty to improve safety at sea, SOLAS. At national levels it also gave weight to the voluntary organizations that had been established in coastal areas, often promoted by the fishermen's wives and mothers and other women in the communities. Their aim was to promote safety culture, raise the necessary funds, and exert pressure on legislators to provide the legal framework for improved safety (see BOX 5).

Such voluntary organizations played a very important role in promoting safety in fisheries communities around the North Atlantic. In recent years, one of their major tasks in many communities has been to prepare and provide systematic safety training courses for fishermen.


In spite of vigorous, well-organized, and widely promoted activities by course organizers, fishermen's reluctance to attend safety courses is a serious cause of concern.

Fishermen often seem neither aware of, nor willing to admit the risks inherent in their occupation. In addition to plenty of anecdotal evidence, there are scientific studies showing fishermen's disposition toward risk-taking,35 some of which even report that fishermen are more prone to suffer fatal injuries on land than members of other occupations.36 In a Canadian study, the "hierarchy of worries" among offshore fishermen showed that their greatest concerns centred on the depletion of the fishstocks and the potential loss of work, etc. Then came various other worries, and only toward the bottom of the list, if mentioned at all, were worries or fear of injury on the job.37

This attitude, combined with reluctance to spend valuable time ashore training and to accept the potential loss of income while attending safety courses, makes it difficult, if not futile, to offer safety courses for fishermen on a voluntary basis. It is interesting to note how speakers from different parts of the world at the international conference on safety and working conditions aboard fishing vessels, held in Rimouski, Canada in 1989,38 agreed that because of fishermen's disposition, voluntary safety courses would be futile. Only if compelled to do so, would the fishermen attend such courses. Some examples are below.

Box 4. Voluntary safety training inadequate

USA: "The major problem faced by educators and organisations in charge of setting up safety program, is the lack of interest bordering on complete indifference manifested by fishermen. This lack of interest is not displayed by American fishermen alone - it is worldwide"1.

Norway: "When the Safety Training got underway on a voluntary basis, it met with increasing interest, not least because the instructors found an alarming lack of knowledge, which the training was able to eliminate. In spite of this, the need to make the courses obligatory has its origin in the following factors: a) the safety training is no longer newsworthy. b) The fishermen feel that through discussion, films and television etc they have gained sufficient knowledge c) Some fishermen can not be motivated to train voluntarily. Experience has shown that many fishermen refuse to receive any form of training or education if they are not forced to do so. d) The fishermen consider the financial sacrifice too large. They only follow courses when they are required to have a certificate or when it is a condition for a licence to operate - there must be a direct economic benefit as a result of following a course. e) The vessel-owners have not motivated their crews or laid the necessary foundations for the courses"2.

USA: "History has shown, that attendance at voluntary safety programs has been sporadic. Programs are often postponed or cancelled due to lack of interest or adequate participation from the fishing industry. Many have attempted to overcome this problem by providing incentives for attendance and by taking the program on the road. Programs have also combined efforts with other supporting associations (e.g. Fishermen's Wives) to increase safety awareness in the fleet"3.

Canada: "Informational meetings could be arranged with various groups (of fishermen), but from past experience, we have found attendance is poor when vessel safety is the only topic. Existing training courses for fishermen have not been well attended. Without a regulatory requirement for training, there is probably little chance that fishermen would attend in significant numbers"4.

Kenya: "Fishermen of all types should take some courses orientated to equip them with knowledge of navigation and safety and working conditions aboard fishing vessels. Basic courses should include: 1. first aid 2. fire-fighting 3. elementary navigational and seamanship, including full knowledge of wind and current systems 4. swimming and diving, 5. making and using simple safety equipment e.g. rafts, old tyres and tubes etc....The courses should be compulsory to all fishermen so as to minimise occupational accidents caused by third should be mandatory that all crewmembers who can not swim should not be employed until they learn and master swimming and diving practices" 5.

Canada: "Fishing is one of the few industries in Canada for which there is no required training to enter the industry. Accordingly, in the area of training and education, the committee (Tripartite committee of Labour, Government and Industry, established in 1988) recommended that all fishermen be required to obtain a certificate of attendance at a safety training course by 1995, as prerequisite to obtaining an annual personal commercial fishing licence. The committee was sufficiently concerned with the level of safety in the industry that it was convinced that the situation could be redressed only by a system of training which is compulsory for all fishermen. The Committee was not persuaded that voluntarism in the field of training would materially alter the existing reality. Whether as a result of the rugged individualism, which typifies the industry, or an apparent discomfort with the educational setting, there seems to be a natural reluctance on the part of fishermen to submit themselves to a formal training process"4.

Quotations from the International Symposium on Safety and Working Conditions Aboard Fishing Vessels, Université de Quebec, Rimouski, 1989.

1. Armand Lachance, Rappoteurs report, p.434.

2. Halvard Aasjord Safety training and accident rates in the Norwegian fisheries, pp. 446-448.

3. Robert Moran, National Council for fishing vessel safety and insurance: Vessel safety programs for US commercial fisheries. pp.386-391.

4. John M. Carter, Federal/provincial initiatives on occupational safety and health in the fishing industry. pp 382-385.

5. James Siwo Ubaga. Vessel and occupational safety for fishermen in East Africa. pp 125-129.


Offering courses on a voluntary, irregular "on again - off again" basis demands a lot of marketing effort and reaches comparatively few fishermen. Interest may be temporarily aroused by dramatic incidents, such as major losses of lives at sea, but when their effects wear off, the marketing effort has to be resumed. This sporadic approach is costly in terms of time and money and has limited impact. This has been recognized by most leading nations in safety at sea, which in the last decade have made safety training compulsory for all fishermen entering the profession, with some also including experienced fishermen. These include many countries in Europe as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The main elements of the training include: first aid, survival at sea, fire-fighting/smoke diving, and safety on board; hull, machinery and electrical equipment; and stability. In the United States and Canada, the training often includes radio and navigation equipment. The courses vary in length usually from 20 to about 40 hours.

Any mandatory programme is likely to be resented, resisted and probably to fail, unless it has the support and involvement of fishermen. It is important to offer the training in a realistic environment involving the fishermen in "hands-on" participation with active feedback. Therefore the training is either provided on board specially equipped training vessels or in training centres in the fishing communities. In some places, drills can be offered on board the fishermen's own vessels. The need to establish trust between trainees and trainers is recognized and experienced fishermen are appointed as instructors where possible.

Safety training for fishermen has been introduced at various levels with various requirements for the issue of a certificate. Some courses merely require attendance, while more comprehensive programmes require specific tasks to be undertaken by the trainee (e.g. extinguishing a fire or launching and boarding a life raft) and, at the higher levels, they require oral and written examinations to be completed satisfactorily. Many pre-sea safety courses in developed countries are identical, or very similar to courses agreed by international convention for trading vessels by IMO and described in IMO Model courses. These courses are designed to be adapted to various types and size of vessel and a fishing vessel is, in effect, just another vessel. The components of these courses are:

  1. Personal survival techniques,
  2. Fire prevention and fire fighting,
  3. Elementary first aid,
  4. Personal safety and social responsibilities.

The certificates from such courses have the added advantage of occupational mobility for the trainee and the rationalization of expensive training resources between the trading and fishing industries. The certificates from such approved basic training also have the added advantage that they are internationally recognized.

As in the more general field of fisheries training, there has been a change of emphasis in recent years to functional training where trainees have to demonstrate their competence to complete tasks, rather than prove their knowledge by providing oral or written answers to questions. This type of functional training requires more resources than theoretical training, particularly where trainees are exposed to dangerous situations, and safety during the safety training process becomes an issue. Under such circumstances, specialized facilities, where simulations of dangerous scenarios can be undertaken, but where a tight degree of control by highly trained, experienced instructors can be exercised are highly desirable. Where such survival training centres and fire training centres are available, they should be utilized fully, even by artisanal fishermen. After all, an artisanal fisherman is going to face the same problems as a fisherman from the biggest vessel in the world in a survival at sea situation.

Despite increased safety legislation, mandatory courses and improved safety equipment, some European countries are concerned that the accident rate and fatality rate remain very high. These countries have looked to the Integrated Safety Management (ISM) system adopted by IMO for trading vessels to see if this could provide an answer to the problem. The ISM system requires that the master and crew of a vessel provide a written report, which analyzes and describes the hazardous areas and activities that take place during the operation of the vessel (termed a safety management system). They are also required to state which precautions they will take to reduce or eliminate such hazards. Hence the fishermen are guided in a process whereby they have to think about safety on their own vessel using their particular fishing method, rather than rely on the provision of equipment and training which is specific neither to the vessel nor the fishing method. However, there are reports that the objective of this measure is being circumvented by owners hiring consultants to draw up the ISM reports for their vessels. There are also concerns about such a system causing excessive paper work and it being inappropriate for crew with limited literacy skills.


For several reasons, nothing can be said with certainty about the effect obligatory training may have had in reducing injuries and fatalities in the fishing industry. Firstly, such studies must be done over a longer span of time than the few years that have passed since safety training became obligatory. In fact, obligatory training in many countries is still in an adaptive phase, and is to be fully implemented in a few years time. Secondly, fatality rates must be normalized against comparable data on the number of fishermen with respect to workdays, hours underway, total fish landed, or some other suitable figures in different types of fisheries. Such data are not available.

Thirdly, the effects of training need to be isolated from other factors. General technical improvement in fishing, increased safety awareness, preventive actions, better search and rescue services, etc. combine to reduce injuries and fatalities. Improved records of injuries may coincide with this, increasing the number of reported accidents. Thus the effects of training are masked by several other factors.

It may nevertheless be informative to look at the trends in fishermen fatalities reported by some of the countries that have introduced compulsory safety training for fishermen. In Norway and in Iceland, only half as many fatalities occurred among fishermen between 1995-99 as during the preceding five-year period (1990-94). In Denmark, the trend is in the same direction but not as marked. Figures on the number of man-hours at sea during these periods are not available. The trend has been a gradual reduction in the number of fishermen, but the fall in numbers alone is nowhere near enough to explain the marked drop in fatal accidents.


Fatalities 1990-1994

Fatalities 1995-1999




% Reduction





- 25

- 52%





- 70

- 53%





- 7

- 15,5%

* 1989-98

One of the arguments against compulsory safety training is the cost that has to be carried by the fisherman and/or the community. The total cost varies from one country to another, as does the state subsidy. These costs, however, have to be measured against the multiple benefits of fewer accidents. The total cost in 1997 in Iceland of accidents at sea was estimated to be US$45-60 million, which constitutes 0.6 - 0.8% of the GDP. This includes the cost of marine insurance, search and rescue, medical treatment, social security compensation and personal cost estimated by the "willingness-to-pay method".39 The cost of safety training involving 1,272 fishermen in that year was US$650,000, roughly 1% of the cost of accidents. These examples illustrate the point that it pays the community to invest in safety.

There is every reason to believe that safety training has positive effects on the rates of injuries and fatalities, although, for many reasons, this is difficult to prove with concrete figures.

35 Polnac, R. & Pogie, J. The structure of job satisfaction among New England fishermen and its application to fisheries management policy. American Anthropologist 90: 888-901, 1988.

Polnac, R. & Pogie, J. Danger and rituals of avoidance among New England fishermen. Maritime Anthropological Studies I: 66-78, 1988.

36 Rafnsson, V. & Arnadottir, H. Risk of fatal accidents occurring other than at sea among Icelandic fishermen. Br. Med. Journal 336: 1379-1381. 1993.

Rafnsson, V. & Arndottir, H. Mortality among Icelandic fishermen. International Journal of Epidemiology 23,4: 730-736. 1994.

37 Binkley, M. Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Dalhousie University, Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada.

38 International Symposium on Safety and Working Conditions Aboard Fishing Vessels. Université de Quebec, 1989.

39 Cost of Accidents at Sea in Iceland. Institute of Economic Studies, University of Iceland, 1998.

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