The New Brunswick government has introduced legislation to make personal flotation devices or life jackets mandatory for fishers, answering a recommendation issued after two fishermen drowned in 2016.
There is no requirement for fishers to wear life jackets, or PFDs, under current legislation, something the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said should change given the frequency of drowning in the industry.
Fishing vessels are not considered workplaces under the province's Occupational Health and Safety Act, leaving WorkSafeNB unable to enforce safety standards.
Trevor Holder, the post-secondary education, training and labour minister, introduced amendments to the law in the legislature Tuesday. The amendments, if passed, would take effect June 1, 2024.
"The main goal is to make fishing a much safer industry," Richard Blais, WorkSafeNB's vice-president of prevention, said in an interview prior to the introduction of the bill.
"We know that drowning is a significant cause of death in that workplace, in that environment, and we believe that these changes that we're proposing will make it safer to fish and people can come home to their families."
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada found an average of 10 people die each year working in the commercial fishing industry. A 2012 report by the board says about a quarter of all fishing deaths are a result of falling overboard, and in some cases, being unable to reboard.
The board's watchlist describes fishing as "one of the most hazardous occupations in the country," with most deaths considered preventable.
No specific numbers for New Brunswick were immediately available.
Clifford Harvey, the director of investigations with the Transportation Safety Board, said the board has been monitoring New Brunswick's actions since issuing a report on the 2016 deaths of two fishermen in the Bay of Chaleur off Salmon Beach, who weren't wearing PFDs.
The report called for the province to make PFD mandatory.
The board's website includes annual updates on New Brunswick's actions regarding making PFDs mandatory, including holding consultations with the fishing industry several years ago and holding awareness campaigns.
"I think that education and awareness around the importance of personal flotation devices when working on the deck of fishing vessels cannot really cannot go overstated," Harvey said. "It's very, very important."
Transportation Safety Board reports have noted resistance among fishers to life jackets and PFDs considered ill-suited for use while working on deck.
"Fishermen also may not wear a PFD because many have accepted the risk, it interferes with their movement while working on deck, and there is a fear of entanglement," the board's 2012 report into industry safety states.
However, new designs have emerged. In 2017, CBC reported the Grand Manan Fishermen's Association was seeing an increase in PFD use.
"We certainly received a lot of feedback that there was some concerns that it could impede the activity itself in terms of the fishing," Blais said of industry feedback about PFD use. "Now though, with new designs, a lot of the concerns have been alleviated. There's a lot more choices now for the industry."
Unfortunately, of course, if you're not wearing it and you fall overboard, the consequences are not going to come from WorkSafe's authority under the act — it will be the risk of drowning. - Richard Blais
The proposed legislation would make captains or vessel owners considered supervisors under the law, which would carry responsibilities to ensure workplace safety standards are followed.
Fishers would be considered employees, also carrying certain obligations, he said.
Blais said among the issues they need to sort out are enforcement when vessels leave the harbour. He said WorkSafeNB may work with other agencies like Transport Canada to monitor compliance on fishing vessels.
Once the legislation is in place, he said, they will spend the first few months holding education and awareness campaigns.
"Unfortunately, of course, if you're not wearing it and you fall overboard, the consequences are not going to come from WorkSafe's authority under the act — it will be the risk of drowning."
The board's 2017 recommendation to implement mandatory PFDs followed a previous investigation into the 2013 grounding of a lobster boat in Tabusintac Bay. The boat was equipped with life-jackets and personal flotation devices, but the three fishermen who died weren't wearing them.
CBC News has requested comment from the Maritime Fishermen's Union, which in September said it couldn't provide an interview because it needed to better understand the proposed rules.