Fishing News Article – Drug and Alcohol Policy

Fishing News has been the voice of the fishing industry since 1913, bringing the latest news and features about the UK and Irish commercial fishing to the industry.  Bartons Marine Department were delighted to be invited to write a number of legal based articles for the publication, which we are pleased to reproduce one of them below:


As a crew member on a MFV, you will be aware of the importance of observing the Drugs and Alcohol Policy (D&A Policy) carried on board.  Not least for the obvious reason of maintaining all the crew’s safety whilst working but also to protect any individuals, should they go overboard.  The increased risk of hypothermia and the general effects of drugs or alcohol are likely to be highly detrimental to survival.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is a legal alcohol limit for professional seafarers whilst on duty, which is a blood alcohol concentration of 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres.  This is lower than the current drink driving limit of 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres.  It is estimated that individuals metabolise alcohol at a rate of between 0.015ml and 0.02ml per hour.  50 milligrams is a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 0.05%.  A pint of strong beer will result in a BAC of 0.458%, which is almost at the limit and would take 3 hours to reduce back to zero.

Despite there being a permitted legal limit, the usual and sensible position is to have a zero tolerance policy to alcohol consumption on board whilst on duty.  However, the position becomes more complex where you are both working and living on board.  Thought must be given by all to crew safety generally, where there is potential for any crew members to be accessing the vessel whilst under the influence.

In a safety flyer produced by the MAIB in January 2020 following the tragic loss of the skipper on board MFV “Artemis”, it was confirmed that since 1992, alcohol had been a contributing factor in 9% of crew fatalities from UK registered fishing vessels and contributed to 62% of fatalities on fishing vessels in port.  This figure does not include fishermen who fell from the quayside prior to even reaching the vessel.

The MAIB said: “Boarding a fishing vessel from a quayside while under the influence of alcohol, and then negotiating the ladders and hatches on board, poses considerable risk.”

In addition, alcohol was a factor in at least 7 non-fatal incidents that led to the loss of the vessel.

If any crew members are likely to be living on board for any period of time, the risks to them returning to the vessel whilst inebriated should be assessed and reduced to the lowest acceptable level.  Some may consider this requires a zero tolerance policy, whether the crew are on or off duty.

If alcohol consumption is allowed, the D&A Policy requires a clear definition of what constitutes on duty and what are deemed acceptable alcohol limits whilst off duty.  It is important for all crew members that the D&A Policy is not just in existence but also enforced.  Since 2018, all fishermen will have a Fishermen’s Work Agreement, which is to be signed by owners/owner’s representative and the fisherman.  Reference can be made to agreeing the D&A Policy in this document, as well as by signing a copy of the Policy itself, to confirm all parties have read and understood it.

Ideally there should be some discussion regarding the agreed culture on board, to ensure owners, skippers and all crew members understand the importance of the relevant issues and what is acceptable conduct.  In particular, if English is not the crew member’s first language.  A translation may be required.

The D&A Policy should set out the rules to abide by and it is usual for the Policy to be included in the Safety Management Folder.  The Policy should set out whether drugs and alcohol testing may be carried out and the disciplinary procedure for when the policy is not complied with.

If recreational consumption of alcohol is permitted, this should not compromise the safety of crew who are required to return to the vessel.  The Safety Folder should include an assessment for boarding and leaving the vessel.  Some control measures may include having a designated person to monitor and assist individuals boarding the vessel, ensuring crew do not attempt to board the vessel alone, putting lights on, making sure the deck is tidy and hatches closed and ensuring the crew have completed the necessary safety training courses.

MGN 591 (M+F) asserts that fishermen have their own part to play in minimising risks to themselves, and that this includes avoiding alcohol.  It also states that risk assessments should consider health and safety when crew are returning to the vessel, possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs and with a reduced ability to recognise risks.  There may also be local byelaws which address alcohol consumption on board.

If a crew member is found to be in possession of drugs or under the influence of drugs or alcohol whilst on duty, it is usual for the D&A Policy to require their immediate suspension from duty whilst an investigation is undertaken.

Should customs officers board the vessel and drugs be found on board, this could lead to the vessel being detained and the crewmember, and potentially the owner, being prosecuted.  If an accident occurs on board and it is established that drugs or alcohol were a factor, this could lead to a civil claim against owners for failing to provide a safe work environment and is likely to spell the end of individual fisherman’s service on board.

It is time well spent for all crewmembers and owners to take an objective look at their vessel’s D&A Policy to ensure everyone is content it provides a clear, comprehensive policy which sets defined perimeters and addresses all safety issues, if alcohol consumption is to be permitted whilst on board but off duty.

For more information about anything mentioned in the above article please contact Bartons Marine Law Team on 01752 675740.