Drowned fish-farm worker was in overloaded boat with no lifejacket
A worker at a Scottish salmon farm died when the overloaded boat he was in capsized on a loch on the Isle of Lewis.
Stornoway Sheriff Court heard that five men had been in the boat, an open vessel with an outboard motor at the back, although the recommended maximum capacity was only three people.
Peter Duce, 61, had been employed by Outer Hebrides-based West Minch Salmon, which supplies organic salmon to supermarkets and restaurants. He had been one of five operatives who had gone out in the boat 300 metres offshore to the centre of Loch Heather to inspect fish cages, check on the fish, feed them and remove dead fish from the cages.
The court was told that while the five men usually went out in two teams, on 26 February 2008 they decided to all get in the same boat in an attempt to get the task done more quickly and make it easier to carry out. It heard that the boat had regularly been overloaded in this way.
Ann Poyner, the HSE inspector who investigated the case, explained to SHP that it had been a windy, stormy day and bad weather had been forecast. However, no one realised that Mr Duce was the only person not wearing a lifejacket, or any buoyancy equipment.
She recounted how, on the way back to the shore, the wind had veered round to blow down the length of the loch, causing a build up of large waves. A wave washed over the edge of the boat, filling it with water and upturning it, spilling all the men into the water. Four men managed to swim to shore, but Mr Duce was not able to do so. His body was retrieved the next day.
“The boat was being used outside of its criteria,” Inspector Poyner said. “The company should have assessed the average conditions on that loch and how many people would be needed to work on the cages, in order to choose a suitable boat.”
She went on: “Alternatively, if they used a boat like the one in the incident, they should have issued clear operating instructions for safe use and adequately trained their staff on the boat’s limitations. They had not taken into account the fact that as the fish get bigger, they need more food, so the load in the boat would be greater.”
West Minch Salmon mitigated that the boat operators had all been trained and were experienced. There had never before been a problem in using the boat in such a way. But the inspector said there had been no work practices laid out as to how to do things properly, and a manual that did exist had been left in a filing cabinet.
She said: “The company should have been aware of what the work practices were. It should have ensured that information provided was used and interpreted in the correct way”.
The inspector added that there were too many different pieces of flotation equipment available and the firm had not clarified what and how the employees should use it, causing confusion among the staff. “It was left to the men on the ground to decide what they were wearing on any particular day,” she noted.
Since the incident, the company has tightened up its procedures.
Depute fiscal Jeoff Main said in court that the boat was loaded “clearly in excess” of its safe limits. He said: “Overloading the boat made it more susceptible to sinking.”
West Minch Salmon was fined £70,000 after it pleaded guilty on 9 November to breaching s2(1) of HSWA 1974 by failing to ensure its employees’ safety.