Open hatches lead to death of crewman

Lookout! Issue 34, December 2015

Propping up a hatch cover on the deck of a fishing trawler resulted in the death of a crewman who fell 6.9 metres, through two hatches, to the floor of an empty fish well.
Hatch accident
Maritime New Zealand ©2021
The hatch that had its cover propped up for maintenance.

The vessel was in port for maintenance, and contractors had requested that one of the hatches on the main deck be “vented”, so they could run electrical cables between decks. Pieces of four-by-two wood were placed under two corners of the hatch cover to create a gap of about five centimetres between the open side of the cover and the edge of the hatch.

While at sea the hatch is kept closed, with the hatch cover fitting snugly into a steel lip so that the top of the cover is flush with the deck. It is secured in this position from below with turnbuckle fasteners.

Directly below, on the wet deck, is the hatch cover for the port number 8 fish well. While it is normally kept closed, the cover on the fish well was removed that day to enable cleaning. During a voyage there would be brine in the fish well, which would break the fall – but on that day the well was empty, having just been cleaned.

Other crew had walked on to the vented hatch cover on deck during the day with no incident. But when the victim did so, the cover rotated and he and the 2x2 metre cover fell through the opening. He fell through the two hatch openings to the bottom of the well, with the 165kg hatch following and coming to rest on his hands.

The captain was alerted and got the navigator to call emergency services while he rushed to the well. The captain administered first aid, as relayed from emergency services by the navigator, but the crewman died at the scene.

The fishing company operating the vessel was fined $48,000 and ordered to pay $35,000, after being prosecuted by Maritime NZ under section 6 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 for failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees while at work.


  • The first duty of the company owning the trawler, under section 8 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act, is to eliminate the hazard to the safety of its staff.
  • The vented hatch was unsecured and presented the same hazard of a fall from height as an open hatch.
  • At the time of the accident ,the company rated the hazard posed by vented hatches as “one out of 10” on its hazard rating system. This meant the company considered the arrangement was unlikely to cause an accident; but if it did, it would be unlikely to be serious.
  • After the accident, the company took immediate steps to ensure all hatches are either closed or, if open, protected by guardrails or cordoned off with a rope erected two metres from the edge of the hatch.
  • Another option, or practical step to ensure the safety of employees, would have been to prop up the hatch cover – with timber or steel positioned across the hatch, instead of at the corners – and secure the cover using an extended turnbuckle mechanism.

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