Fish processing workers suffer frostbite

Lookout! Issue 29, August 2013

On the same day two employees, both with minimal experience, suffered from frostbite while unloading fish from the holds of a purse seine vessel.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
Fish in the hold in brine chilled to approximately -17°C.

The holds had been filled with brine and chilled to approximately -17°C. In the fish processing process, chilled brine causes the fish to float to the surface, where they can be manually loaded onto conveyor belts.

During the first employee’s first two hours’ work, water got into his gloves as he was reaching into the hold to unload fish from a vessel. He noticed his hands were numb and very cold, and subsequently took his scheduled break and returned to work with a new pair of gloves.

During his second two-hour shift, he ripped one of his gloves on the spikes of a fish, which caused water to enter the glove.

He noticed that his right hand had gone hard, and when he removed his glove at lunchtime, two of his fingers had gone black. The employee then notified his supervisor who immediately arranged for him to be transported to hospital where he was diagnosed as having frostbite. He was hospitalised for two and a half weeks.

The employee responded very slowly to treatment but still does not have use of the fingers on his right hand.

His fingers remain swollen and stiff, with the joints locked in a fixed position. He must continue to wear compression garments, and is likely to have permanent limited mobility in the four fingers. His treatment is ongoing.

Actual gloves used (left). Recommended minimum gloves (right).
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

A second employee, who was doing a similar job, noticed his hands were numb and sore at the end of his first shift. During his second shift, his hands became sore and he mentioned this to another employee, who advised him that the best thing to do was to get his circulation going and keep warm.

He continued to work, but tore his gloves on fish spikes, which allowed water to enter them. He put another pair on top, hoping that they would block the holes in the first pair.

At lunch time, the second man asked his supervisor about the best way to get the circulation back to his fingers. She advised him to wrap his hands around a hot cup of coffee.

During the afternoon, the second man was able to rotate between jobs, so his hands were not constantly going into the cold brine.

After his shift had finished, the second man noted that his hand had turned white. He went home but when he awoke the following morning, a large blister had formed over the little finger on his left hand. He then sought medical assistance. He has recovered from the frostbite but is unable to work in cold conditions.

The fish processing company faced a charge under Section 13 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 (the Act) of “failing to ensure its employees were sufficiently trained and supervised”. It was fined $16,000.


  • All employees received a pair of thin rubber gloves and cotton glove liners, as well as other waterproof clothing. Both employees suffered frostbite as a result of working with their hands in extremely cold brine.
    • Both had also torn their gloves on fish spikes, which allowed brine to get into their gloves. In the first case, the employee obtained a new pair of gloves and, in the second case the employee put on a second pair of gloves.
    • Neither of these actions provided adequate protection from the cold. Just providing safety equipment is not sufficient – all practicable steps must be taken to mitigate or eliminate the hazard.
  • Both men also received a safety briefing, but this did not specifically identify the dangers of working in extremely cold brine.
    • In the first case the man took action himself to reduce the effects of the cold, but this was unsuccessful. In the second case, the man sought the advice first from a fellow employee and then from a supervisor.
    • Health and safety is something that must be taken very seriously by employees and employers and any potential issues dealt with when they are first raised.

Back to index

Cover of Issue 29
Return to the index for Lookout! Issue 29, August 2013
Return to index
Previous: Runaway boat risks lives
Next: Serious ‘slip-up’ on slipway