Stewart Franck has been up since 2 a.m. It’s Nov. 29, the kickoff of lobster season for southwestern Nova Scotia, and the executive director of the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia (FSANS) has been visiting wharfs across the province promoting safe practices.
“(I’ve been) doing high-fives and fist pumps and passing out information packages to the captains to hand out to the crews before they leave and wishing them a safe and successful season. We’re trying to do all we can to keep them coming home alive,” Franck tells me later that morning.
FSANS was launched in January 2010 in response to escalating workers’ compensation costs and high injury rates in the fishing industry. The association’s mandate is to reverse these trends throughout seafood harvesting, processing plants, aquaculture and other related services. Employers fund the association through a levy collected by the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia.
“The industry hasn’t always had the best reputation as a place where people want to go to work in a fish plant or even fishing because the money might be good in some cases but its hard work and not necessarily known for being safe,” says Franck. “So we want to reduce injuries and manage the costs of those injuries that do occur.”
Over the past two years in harvesting (the association’s largest segment encompassing more than 1,000 of its 1,300 member companies) the workers’ compensation rates have dropped by one-third, representing $8-10 million back in the pockets of fishers, says Franck.
When the association first started, the fisheries sector in Nova Scotia was averaging five or six fatalities per year. But progress is being made with three fatalities in 2015 and just one in 2016.
“The industry is responding really well and they are beginning to adopt more of a prevention mindset. That is their accomplishment. We are only cheerleaders. The industry is doing all the heavy lifting on this and we are just trying to help and guide along the way,” Franck says.
However, 2017 was off to a bad start when a fisherman died on Jan. 7.
The association has been very vocal in promoting the use of personal flotation devices (PFDs). In the past, too many people were falling overboard with no protection and very few fishers donned PFDs. Frequent loss of life at sea was to be expected, and it was considered just part of the job, says Franck. Fortunately, things are turning around.
“This morning at a couple of the wharfs, even before the boats were untied, at least 50 per cent of the people had PFDs on — they’re not even on the boat yet,” says Franck. “Captains are more apt to say now, ‘If you want to come fish with me, you must be wearing a PFD’ because they are learning the risk to the captain is extreme if something happens.”
FSANS, along with the Nova Scotia Fisheries Sector Council, is in charge of implementing Fishing Safety Now, a five-year safety action plan developed by the industry, for the industry.
The overarching goal of the plan is to make fishing the safest industry in Nova Scotia — right now it’s the most dangerous. According to the WCB’s 2013 annual report, a fisher in the province is 46 times more likely to lose his life on the job than a worker in any other industry.
One item in the plan is weather forecasting. The industry expressed concerns about the availability of weather forecasting in certain areas as well as the timing of the forecasts throughout the day and night. Environment Canada has already made the necessary changes and it’s having an impact: Lobster season was delayed by one day this year due to weather concerns.
FSANS and the Nova Scotia Fisheries Sector Council, the Department of Labour, the WCB of Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) conduct a program at wharfs called “Are You Ready?” Crews learn about the importance of wearing PFDs, participate in overboard drills and prepare for various emergencies.
“Do you know how to get someone back on board should they fall overboard. Or what if you have a fire in the wheelhouse? How are you going to get your safety equipment? Where is it stored?” says Franck.
Making sure fishers receive all necessary training is a priority at FSANS. The association offers some training courses itself but it also offers members discounts for third-party training, such as marine first-aid courses from St. John Ambulance or Transport Canada courses through NSCC. It also just recently started co-ordinating training providers to go to members’ workplaces.
“When we started to get people into training courses, it was kind of like pulling teeth. The first year we had about 200 people enrolled in training. Now it has grown to over 2,000 per year and it’s accelerating,” says Franck.
Seafood processing plants have been a particular focus for the association. In addition to developing an in-house safety training program for these employers, FSANS is working closely with them on their OHS programs. Whether it be joint health and safety committees, hazard inspections or incident investigations, the association is working to help plants implement the core programs that have been missing, says Franck. Plus, FSANS is working on a suite of online orientation courses for new plant workers.
The association is taking a close look at return-to-work opportunities within these processing plants. Their workers’ compensation rates have been coming down a modest two to four per cent per year, but there is a real opportunity for job accommodation, says Franck.
FSANS created a drug and alcohol awareness program after it was repeatedly approached by industry for help on this issue. About 30 per cent of fishing vessels have reported an issue with drugs and alcohol, says Franck.
“Our focus is to provide information and awareness, not testing or enforcement or discipline,” he says.
The association offers brochures with information and resources as well as a set of baseball cards that specifically address marijuana, alcohol, hard drugs and prescription drugs.
“We tell people to collect the whole set and it’s just something we can hand out and you can put it in your shirt pocket and hand it out to people randomly and get the conversation going,” he says.
Safety has always been at the forefront of Franck’s work. When he was 18, he worked in a coal mine in Thompson, Man., and his mine captain talked about safety before he would give Franck his first paycheque.
“He went through the spiel and ripped my cheque in half… He gave me half of the cheque and that was for coming to work every day and getting the work done: the type of work, the amount of work, the quality of work. He handed me the other half of the cheque and he said ‘This is for doing it safely. For not getting hurt, not hurting anyone else, following the safety rules and procedures. And I want you to remember every paycheque you get in your life, half of it is for doing it safely.’”
Franck is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional who has his safety certificate from Mohawk College.
He was working as a safety consultant in 2011 when he saw the job ad for executive director of FSANS. Just a couple months before, he was camping and met some fishermen. They were drinking beer, playing guitar around the campfire and talking shop.
“They had a great laugh that I was a health and safety consultant. One guy said ‘I’m an 11th generation lobsterman. Are you going to come aboard my boat and tell me how to do it safely?’ That was an incredible challenge to me,” Franck says.
And with that in mind, Franck took the job of executive director of FSANS in March 2011.
“I said, ‘I want to take this challenge. I have a few more years to work (before retirement) and I think the fishing industry is an industry that really needs some intervention in safety and I would like to take that on,’” says Franck.
This year is Franck’s last year before he retires and he is most proud of the real turnaround the industry has made when it comes to safety. It is certainly on the right track and has come a long way, although he acknowledges there is still a ways to go.
“We still hear about unnecessary exposures to increased risk, poor risk decisions, at-risk behaviour, like the most recent one: ‘I don’t care if it’s blowing 100 knots, I want to get out there and fish and start making some money,’” says Franck. “We attack those perceptions by shedding some light on how selfish that thinking is. If you don’t come home from work, all those people that you love most are the ones that are the most affected.”
Amanda Silliker is the editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2017 issue of COS.