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Fishing tragedy leads to calls for better grief support in the sector

Nova Scotia lobster fisherman fell overboard


(Canadian OH&S News) — Nova Scotia’s first fishing fatality of the year has motivated people in the industry, including professional fishers and the president of a safety organization, to suggest the need for a better support system for surviving colleagues of victims.

On Jan. 7, a lobster fisherman on the vessel Secret Sea fell overboard while setting traps near the town of Shelburne, according to information from the provincial Department of Labour. Although the worker was recovered from the water, he subsequently died.

“We are in the preliminary steps of the investigation,” read an e-mailed statement from the Department. “Occupational health and safety officers will be gathering information and will continue to investigate the incident to determine what happened.”

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) stated in a Jan. 9 deployment notice that it was sending its own team of investigators to the scene of the accident. “The TSB will gather information and assess the occurrence,” the notice read.

Stewart Franck, executive director of the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia (FSA), identified the victim as Jimmy Buchanan. Local media reports have cited Buchanan’s age as 44 years old.

Following the incident, an online CBC News story quoted several fishers in the province who felt that the sector needed a better system to support grieving colleagues, such as visiting counsellors and other mental-health workers.

“I was glad to see that article, actually,” Franck told COHSN about the CBC story, “to see that people are asking for services like that, because I think there’s definitely a need.”

Franck, who is also a Canadian Registered Safety Professional, elaborated that tragedy has a devastating effect on fishing communities. “When an incident like this happens in the small fishing villages in Nova Scotia — or anywhere, for that matter — the entire community is greatly affected,” he said. But the lack of mental-health resources in remote areas means that survivors usually turn to their families, friends and local churches for support.

“I imagine if someone calls the Nova Scotia Health Authority, they might get some support there, but I don’t know how much that’s used,” added Franck. “It would be nice if there were something more formal.”

The Health Authority reportedly provides counsellors for communities affected by tragedy if a community requests one; it also has a 24/7 helpline.

While the FSA does not provide grief support or other counselling services, Franck has sometimes been called upon to advise and assist fishing crews or individuals after fatalities — typically for more practical services, like helping people deal with media requests or fill out necessary forms. “That’s not counselling. That’s kind of helping people go through a process,” he said.

Although Nova Scotia has seen relatively high rates of fishing fatalities over the past few decades, the situation appears to be improving. In 2015, the provincial government launched Fishing Safety Now, a plan to make the industry safer through better regulations, practice codes, training and public awareness (COHSN, June 9, 2015). That year, the number of fishing deaths in the province dropped to three.

“Statistically, over the last 20-30 years, we average about five or six fatalities a year. And that is about half of the fatalities in fishing across the nation. So yeah, we have a large number,” said Franck. “This is the first one and hopefully the last in 2017,” he added, referring to Buchanan’s death.

“The industry is improving, but we’ve got a long way to go to establish any kind of long-term trend.”