Employer talks about death of his employee

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Need for safety stressed during presentation

DIGBY - Douglas Ward Wickens fell off a fish dragger, the Silver Angel, on May 3, 2011, about nine kilometers south of Cape Sable Island.

Raymond Belliveau (centre) with Gilles and Raymond d’Entremont after a presentation in Digby about the importance of PFDs. JONATHAN RILEY PHOTO

His captain, the only other person aboard that night, tried to reach him with a gaff, threw a life ring towards him and then went for a longer rope.

When he came back Wickens was gone.

Wickens was not wearing any personal floatation device (PFD) when he went over the side. A Nova Scotia court found that this was his employer’s fault.

Wickens worked for Charlesville Fisheries of East Pubnico, a medium-sized company with a half-dozen fishdraggers, half of which fish out of East Jeddore on the Eastern Shore. The company employs about 100 people seasonally, at sea and at a fish plant.

Company president Raymond Belliveau pleaded guilty last December under Nova Scotia’s Occupational Health and Safety Act of not making sure his employees used adequate personal protective equipment.

The court laid out financial penalties totalling over $70,000, which doesn’t include support Charlesville Fisheries had already provided to Wickens’ family. The court also required Belliveau to make three public presentations in western Nova Scotia.

“Even without the court requirement, I wouldn’t have any problem doing the presentations,” said Belliveau in Digby during his first presentation last month. “This is something I believe very strongly in. Hopefully no one else in Nova Scotia ever has to go through what we went through.”

Belliveau told the audience that he arrived for work that day at the wharf in East Pubnico like every morning at 7:30 a.m. He noticed one of his fishdraggers, the Silver Angel, wasn’t tied up. He knew that Wickens and Gerry Henneberry, the captain, were bringing the fish dragger from East Jeddore, where it was based, to East Pubnico for an inspection.

Belliveau checked the Silver Angel’s position and saw she was sitting still off Cape Sable Island. He thought maybe she was broke down and called the boat to find out.

“Gerry Henneberry answered and my worst fears were confirmed,” he said. “He wasn’t in a state to talk but before he got a few words out I knew.”

Henneberry and Wickens had left East Jeddore about 10 a.m. on May 2. Normally they go to sea with three people aboard, but the second deckhand was driving a car to Pubnico to take the two men home.

Around midnight, Henneberry went to bed after they had deployed two paravane stablizers – a sort of metal kite towed through the water to reduce the rolling of the boat.

Wickens woke Henneberry so they could bring in the stabilizers at around 4:50 a.m. on May 3, about five nautical miles or nine kilometres south of Cape Sable Island. They brought in the port paravane without any problem – Henneberry working on an upper deck, Wickens working aft on a lower deck.

On the starboard side, Wickens often walked along the gunwhale (the upper edge side of the vessel) with the haul-up rope to save his crewmates from crawling over nested tote boxes on the deck.

According to a report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which investigated the incident, no other crewmember of the Silver Angel walked along the gunwhales, however Wickens “had performed this task hundreds of times in the past, and displayed great agility in doing so.”

Down on the gunwhale and aft on the lower deck, Wickens would be out of sight of the captain working forward.

No one knows for sure but it seems this time Wickens slipped off the gunwhale. When Henneberry saw the haul-up rope hadn’t been moved, he assumed Wickens was waiting on the aft deck and he crawled aft over the tote boxes to give him the haul–up rope.

Henneberry saw Wickens about three to five metres off the side of the boat, calling to him.

The captain crawled off the tote boxes, ran through the wheelhouse, down a stairwell and onto the aft deck. He tried to reach Wickens with a gaff but failed, he then ran forward to grab a life-ring and threw that in the water.

“It fell approximately four meters short,” reads the report.

He ran forward to grab a coil of rope and when he got back aft he could no longer see Wickens. At 4:58 a.m. Henneberry sent a distress signal and began a search.

It was foggy and still over an hour until sunrise, the water was about 4ºC, seas were three metres with a nor-easterly wind of 40 to 50 kilometres per hour.

About 25 fishing vessels and three Coast Guard ships, two Cormorant helicopters and an Aurora airplane took part in the search.

The life-ring was recovered but no trace of Wickens was found. Wickens, 34, left behind a wife and three daughters.

 Belliveau says the hardest thing he has ever done in his life was tell Dana Wickens that her husband had been lost at sea. He says the drive to Bear Point was more than he could handle alone and he took another fisherman for support.

“She knew already but I had to go,” he said. “All I could do was express my deepest sympathies and offer any help she might require.

“There hasn’t been a day since then that Ward hasn’t entered my mind,” said Belliveau.

The RCMP, Transport Canada and finally the Department of Labour, which enforces the NS Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHA), all took turns interviewing Charlesville Fisheries.

Belliveau says before this incident they believed they were working safe – they followed all of Transport Canada rules and had lifejackets for everyone on board.

“We thought Transport Canada was the lead on this,” said Belliveau. “They look after the boats. Labour is the lead when it comes to safety.

“They determined Charlesville Fisheries was at fault. The boat was woefully undermanned with only two men aboard. It was impossible to operate the vessel and keep the man overboard in sight.”

And under the Department of Labour’s OHS Act, it is the employer’s responsibility to not only provide floatation devices when there is a risk of drowning, but also to make sure the PFDs are worn.

In the wake of Wicken’s death, Charlesville Fisheries made changes. They implemented a new occupational health and safety program in August 2011 that included specific detailed references to the safe operation of the fishing vessels. They re-rigged their ships so the crew can’t reach the paravane haul-up rope from the gunwhale. The company has installed life rings back aft and they hung movable ladders that can be slung over the side to assist with rescues.

The company has also provided water-activated PFDS for every crewmember.

Most importantly, they posted a notice in the wheelhouse of every one of their vessels, signed by the boat’s captain, warning that everyone on board must wear a personal floatation device – on first infraction they will be given a severe reprimand and on second infraction they will be fired.

“I don’t know what they’re doing when they’re away from the wharf,” says Belliveau. “I hope they are wearing the PFDs. When I see them coming in to the wharf, they have them on. The captains all know the consequences if they aren’t. Really all I have done is move the onus from me to the captains.”

Besides the huge emotional costs, Belliveau says the death will cost his company over $250,000 – including support for the family, fines and penalties. His Worker Compensation rates have doubled from six per cent to almost 12 per cent – not just for the crew of the Silver Angel but the crew of all five vessels in the Charlesville Fisheries fleet.

A dozen fishermen, fish plant owners and government officials took in a recent presentation Belliveau made in Digby. He gave a second presentation in Halifax the next day for the Nova Scotia Fishpackers Association annual general meeting and spoke to two dozen people there.

The Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia has videoed the first two talks and will be packaging that for distribution to fishing industry associations. They are also planning more presentations but haven’t yet set those dates. Those presentations are planned in the future for Yarmouth and Barrington.

Belliveau says the point of his presentation is a simple one.

“Fishing is dangerous but it can be done safely,” he said. “If Ward had been wearing a PFD, there’s a chance he’d still be with us today.”

 

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  • Kim Nichols
    July 16, 2013 - 06:57

    Nova Scotia is way behind in the safety education and enforcement in many industries compared to other provinces! Employers need to realize how any costs associated with safety will be recovered in the long run! Pick up the pace N.S.