InTrans / Dec 12, 2014

How fishermen can stay safe at sea

Go! Magazine

Fishing boatposted on December 12, 2014

Boats are different from cars in that they do not travel on a paved road to get to a destination. The ocean offers millions of different paths to get to the same place. At the same time, there is one main similarity between cars and boat travel: the driver/boat operator cannot control the environment. Life as a fisherman is a lot safer than it used to be. Even so, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 117 fatalities of fishermen/fisherwomen per 100,000 workers in 2012.

To learn more about fishermen safety and what can be done to avoid fishermen fatalities, I interviewed Jennifer Lincoln of the Center for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

A conversation with the Director of NIOSH, Jennifer Lincoln

What are some of the best management practices that fishermen/fisherwomen should practice to stay safe while out at sea?

To understand what practices are needed to stay safe at sea, I look at the injury and fatality data to see the most common causes for injuries or fatalities. Across the country, more than half of the fatalities are related to the loss of the vessel. The next leading cause of fatalities is falling overboard. From 2000-2013, 198 fishermen fell overboard and died. None of them were wearing a flotation device when they died. The third leading cause of fatalities amongst fishermen is due to deck injuries such as entanglements around winches.

A few important practices can be implemented to reduce these leading causes of injury/fatality amongst fishermen. Knowing how to do emergency drills is an important preventative measure. If a vessel is in distress, the crew need to know how to use emergency equipment and safely abandon the vessel. Falling overboard fatalities can be prevented by having fishermen wear flotation devices. Another important piece is for the crew to practice strategies for retrieving people once they have fallen overboard. Entanglements around winches is another problem. Fishermen can get hands, arms, legs or get their whole body entangled around a winch. Winches help pull in the fishing net onto the vessel. Retrofitting safeguards around winches and an e-stop button can help prevent winch entanglements.

Do you think the commercial fishing industry is generally safe?

I think that commercial fishing is glamorized as being very dangerous. The show, Deadliest Catch, is where they catch crab in the Bering Sea and portray the dangers of fishing. In reality, the highest fatality rates are on the east coast, not the west. Ground fish and scallop fishing have higher fatality rates than those harvesting Alaskan king crab in the Bering Sea (like in the Deadliest Catch).

While all fishing operations have some risk, the majority of these risks can be controlled. Some operations have more risk than others. Practices like looking at weather reports and not going out to sea if poor weather is predicted can reduce a lot of these dangers. The highest number of fishing deaths occur in the Gulf of Mexico Shrimp Fishery. These are most commonly due to falling overboard and deck injuries (including winch entanglements). In many cases, the fisherman may be fishing alone. Or if not alone, they could be out on deck alone with someone else in the wheel house. To prevent fatalities of falling overboard, someone needs to be alerted. There are “man overboard”? alarms that are inexpensive and as small as a cell phone. This helps alert someone on the vessel if a person falls into the water, or if fishing alone, it could alert other vessels in the vicinity to help.

What technologies or best management practices have been implemented to help reduce fishermen/fisherwomen fatalities?

There has been safety improvements since I started working in the area of fishing safety in the early 1990s. I will only mention two technologies that we have worked on, but there have been many technologies and best management practices developed over the last two decades.

In the late 1990s, we focused our research efforts to prevent injuries among fishermen in southeast Alaska. We looked at hospitalization data about injuries that occurred on fishing vessels. Many of these injuries were occurring due to entanglements around winches. To reduce the risk of winch entanglements, NIOSH engineered an emergency stop switch (e-stop) that could be retrofitted onto existing winches found on the decks of fishing vessels. An e-stop is important because if you get pulled towards a winch, you get pulled away from controls to stop the winch. After a couple years of field trials, this e-stop is now available to retrofit old winches and new winches come with e-stops already on them. Another technology is the hatch door monitoring system. This is good for large vessels where the operator can’t see all water tight doors. This can be retrofitted on boats and allow for operators to see what hatches need to be closed up and locked (i.e., in a bad storm, etc.) on a monitoring screen. This is important because some fisheries not only open up the hatch doors at the dock but also at sea to catch fish. It is critical to close hatch doors again when traveling or when experiencing bad weather to make sure the vessel stays afloat.

Do you see climate change as a threat to the safety of the commercial fishing industry due to more intense weather patterns?

The thing that concerns me more is if we start developing fishing grounds in more remote places. Say the arctic ice is gone, or schools of fish are changing and are different places; fisherman keep moving further away from search and rescue assistance to catch fish. This can be problematic in avoiding bad weather, or in having help nearby if needed.

Lastly, what advice would you give someone interested in helping make the commercial fishing industry safer?

New crew should take an eight-hour marine safety class to learn how to use emergency gear on their vessel. Also, they should find a flotation device that they can work in and wear when working on deck. The last piece of advice for new fishermen is to always listen to the captain, because the captain’s job is to keep the crew safe.

Related link

By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

Go! Magazine Article Index