Plater Freezer Accidents
Alaska Fish Processor Injury Claims Lawyers – Learn About Your Rights To Compensation For Injuries Aboard Fish Processing Vessels. Maritime Lawyer James Beard and his partners at Johnson Beard & Trueb PC Handle Fish processor claims in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon.
The plate freezers aboard fish processing vessels are a frequent site for crewmen to be injured while working at sea. These injury accidents to fish processors can almost always be avoided by proper maintenance of the equipment and by following basic safety procedures. Unfortunately, the processing room on most fish processors encourages speed of production over safety, and onboard vessel management may not even enforce their own safety rules.
A large fish processing vessel will have 8-10 plate freezers. Each plate freezer has a series of 12 to 15 horizontal hydraulic shelves that can be compressed together during the freezing cycle. Each shelf can hold up to 12 pans of processed fish. The pans are manually placed in the plate freezer. The space between each shelf is 4-5 inches. While placing the pans in the plate freezer, crewmen put their hands and arms between the plate freezer’s shelves. After the pans are loaded, the shelves are compressed for the freezing cycle. When the hydraulic controls are activated for the plate freezer, the shelves will begin closing from bottom to top, with each shelf taking just seconds to close. After the freezing cycle is completed, the plate freezers are broken open and unloaded from top to bottom. The frozen pans are placed on a conveyor belt which takes them to case up.
Continuous operation of the plate freezer controls the pace of fish processing on a factory trawler or longliner. Every fish processed has to pass through the plate freezer, and if loading of the plate freezer is too slow, it slows the process of the entire factory. The more fish on board, the more quickly the pans have to be moved in and out of the plate freezers.
The most common injury in the plate freezer area involves pans being thrown out of the plate freezer, striking crewmen in the head, back or foot. These “flying pan” cases are far too common. There are several potential causes of a “flying pan” case. The pans can be pushed through the plate freezer from a crewman working on the opposite side. The shelves are slippery, and the pans can be ejected from the shelves under the right circumstances in even moderate seas.
Although there are safety bars for the plate freezers to attempt to avoid these accidents, oftentimes the bars are missing or not used. Few fishing companies properly train their crew in the use of safety bars, and the safety bars provide only minimal protection as they are not put up or down while working on an open shelf. The risk of injury to crewmen working on plate freezers is increased where two or more crewmen are working on a plate freezer at the same time. This creates a situation where one crewman may be working on a top shelf while another crewman is working on a lower shelf, thus exposing the crewman on the lower shelf to the risk of pans dropping out of a top shelf.
Safety instructions for one large fishing company state that only one shelf on the plate freezer should be opened at a time. This lessens the risk of injury. Far too often, this procedure is not enforced or followed. In heavy weather, two crewmen should be assigned to unloading the plate freezer - one crewman loading or unloading the pans, while the other crewman protects against pans flying out of the plate freezer.
Loading and unloading plate freezers is a repetitive task involving twisting and turning. Because the shelves of the plate freezer run from the deck to above a crewman’s head, crewmen are at risk for injuries caused by improper stresses being placed upon the body from poor factory design. Space is at a premium on fish processing vessels, and in many instances there simply isn’t enough space left in the plate freezer area for a crewman to safely do his job.
It is imperative that all crewmen be kept clear of the plate freezers when the plate freezers are being closed. A clear warning should be given by the operator of the plate freezer controls that he intends to close the plate freezer. If a plate freezer is closed without warning, a crewman’s hand may be easily crushed between the compressing shelves. The new model plate freezer specifically warns against crewmen ever sticking their hands between the plates.
Running conveyor belts adjacent to the plate freezers also presents a risk of injury to crewmen. Space is at a premium on all fish processing vessels, and equipment is in extremely close proximity to each other. Crewmen’s clothing can be easily caught in the belt drives and gears of the conveyor belts during freezer breaks. Unguarded chains and gears on conveyor belts can easily cause the loss of fingers or a hand.
Under maritime law, every employer owes their crewmen a safe place to work and a seaworthy vessel. Crewmen must be properly trained and safety rules enforced. A written safety procedure that is not enforced and ignored by crewmen and management is no safety procedure at all. A safety meeting at the start of a long fishing season where new crewmen are given a quick overview of the vessel and vessel production is simply unlikely to be adequate safety training.
By Coast Guard regulation, when injury accidents happen aboard a fish processing vessel they must be thoroughly investigated, and consideration must be given as to how those accidents can be prevented in the future. Following an injury accident, a crew safety meeting should be held to instruct the crew in proper safety procedures and how to prevent further injuries. Remarkably, many fish processing companies fail to properly report crewman injury accidents to the Coast Guard.