A new study by researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has assessed worker safety in the Amendment 80 fleet of factory-trawlers in Alaska. NIOSH is the federal agency responsible for conducting scientific research and making evidence-based recommendations to prevent workplace injury and illness. The NIOSH Alaska Pacific Office has been involved with research on worker safety in the commercial fishing industry since 1991.
Amendment 80 vessels catch, process and freeze fish onboard the vessel. To conduct these operations, these vessels have larger crew complements than catcher vessels. The majority of Amendment 80 vessel crews are not professional mariners, but instead are fish processing workers. In addition to large crews, these vessels also carry processing and freezing machinery, hazardous gases for refrigeration, and large amounts of combustible packaging materials, which create hazards that do not exist on catcher vessels. Amendment 80 vessels operate nearly year round. Because of their ability to freeze, package, and store frozen catch, these vessels can operate in the most remote areas of Alaska for extended periods of time, far away from search and rescue support.
To assess vessel safety in the Amendment 80 fleet, NIOSH researchers analyzed data on a selection of marine casualties including personnel casualties (e.g., fatal and non-fatal work-related injuries) and vessel casualties (e.g., sinking, grounding, collision, flooding, fire, loss of propulsion, loss of electrical power, and loss of steering).
During 2001-2012, 24 Amendment 80 vessels operated in Alaskan waters at some time. A total of 772 marine casualties were reported, of which 409 were work-related injuries. Of the 409 injuries, 25 were fatal and 384 were non-fatal. Approximately half of injuries were minor and 39 percent were moderate. Most of the fatal injuries occurred during two vessel disasters, the sinking of the Arctic Rose in 2001 (15 deaths) and the sinking of the Alaska Ranger in 2008 (5 deaths). The other five fatal injuries were caused by drowning after falling overboard (3 deaths) and blunt force trauma due to being struck by a cable and a hydraulic door (2 deaths).
The injury rates measured in the Amendment 80 fleet showed that workers on those vessels were at high risk for work-related injuries. The risk of fatal injury was 41 times higher than for all US workers, and the risk of non-fatal injury was four times higher than for all US workers. Compared to other fisheries in the US, the fatality rate in the Amendment 80 fleet was lower than in many others, including the Northeast US groundfish trawl fleet, Atlantic scallop fleet, and West coast Dungeness crab fleet. However, both the fatality rate and non-fatal injury rate in the A80 fleet were higher than in the similar Alaska freezer-longline fleet.
The job tasks associated with the highest number of injuries were handling frozen fish, processing fish, and foot traffic onboard. The specific job tasks that were associated with the most injuries while handling frozen fish were stacking blocks of fish in the freezer hold and offloading product. Handling frozen fish was the most common job task for undiagnosed pain/swelling, sprains/strains/tears, contusions, fractures, crushing injuries, and intracranial injuries. Handling frozen fish injuries were most often caused by being struck by a box of frozen fish and by single episodes of overexertion.
Fish products manufactured in the factories onboard A80 vessels are frozen in plate freezers and then packaged and stored in freezer holds. Boxes of frozen fish products are moved around by a combination of conveyor systems, chutes and manual labor. The job task of handling frozen fish was responsible for nearly half of all injuries and should be a priority area for injury prevention strategies. Injury prevention solutions are needed to protect workers from being struck by boxes of frozen fish, especially while stacking boxes in the freezer holds and during offload. Ergonomic interventions are also needed to prevent injuries caused by single episodes of overexertion while manually moving boxes of fish.
The job task of processing fish was responsible for most of the laceration/puncture/avulsion injuries, amputations, and poisonings. These injuries were most often caused by being caught in running equipment and by slipping knives. The factories onboard A80 vessels are equipped with fish processing machinery and conveyor systems to move fish from one machine to the next. The machines have different levels of automation that either increase or decrease the need for worker contact. The injuries sustained while processing fish were different in nature from those sustained while handling frozen fish, suggesting that successful injury prevention efforts must also be different. Interventions to reduce injuries need to target the specific hazards encountered while processing fish that cause lacerations, punctures, avulsions and amputations, which were the most frequent types of injuries associated with processing fish. Working with knives and running equipment are exposures of particular concern that need to be a high priority.
Aside from worker injuries, there were also 357 vessel casualties during 2001-2012. The majority of vessel casualties were minor (73 percent), meaning that the problem was resolved permanently by the crew at sea without any third-party assistance. Moderate vessel casualties were defined as problems that required the vessel to return immediately to port for repairs, accounting for 20 percent of reported casualties. The remaining 7 percent of vessel casualties were serious, meaning that the vessel was unable to cope with the problem at sea on its own and had to be rescued by a third party (such as being towed to port).
The most common types of vessel casualties were loss of electrical power (32 percent) and loss of propulsion (31 percent). Although most loss of power casualties were minor, vessel owners could potentially improve production efficiency and vessel safety by reviewing their engineering systems and identifying ways to make electrical systems more reliable. In contrast to the largely minor problem of loss of power, loss of propulsion casualties were often moderate or serious. Loss of propulsion was the most common cause of serious casualties. Serious casualties involving loss of propulsion were most often caused by mechanical failures of the main engines, gears and engine cooling systems. Losing propulsion at sea is a hazard that should be addressed by vessel owners reviewing their inspection and maintenance policies to identify areas that may need more attention.
Fires were the third most common type of vessel casualty, although almost all were minor. The frequent occurrence of fires on Amendment 80 vessels is concerning, and the causes of fires should be investigated and addressed by vessel owners. The predominance of minor fires as opposed to serious fires may indicate that current fire alarm, response and suppression systems are effectively preventing small fires from becoming serious threats to the vessel and crew.
The Amendment 80 fleet is part of the USCG Alternative Compliance and Safety Agreement (ACSA). The ACSA program was designed to achieve numerous safety, economic, and fishery management goals, both directly and indirectly. The emphasis of ACSA was placed on the primary prevention of vessel disasters (i.e., preventing vessel disasters from occurring in the first place); it included rules for vessel stability, watertight integrity, and the material condition of the hull, tail shaft, rudder, and machinery.
As part of the Amendment 80 safety assessment, NIOSH evaluated the effectiveness of ACSA at improving vessel safety. The evaluation found indications of a positive effect of ACSA on vessel safety in the Amendment 80 and freezer-longline fleets (also part of ACSA). On both types of vessels, reported rates of serious vessel casualties decreased after the vessels reached compliance with ACSA requirements. The major objective of ACSA was to reduce worker fatalities in the Amendment 80 and freezer-longline fleets through prevention of vessel disasters. The decline in serious vessel casualties in both fleets suggests that ACSA may be having the desired effect on vessel safety.
Some safety improvements have been observed in this fleet. Specifically, the risk of serious vessel casualties appears to have declined slightly. Further improvements should be tailored to address specific tasks and vessel systems that have been identified in this review.
Devin Lucas is a lifelong Alaskan and former commercial fisherman. He earned a PhD in occupational safety at Oregon State University and works in Anchorage at the Alaska Pacific Office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Devin’s research focuses on preventing work-related injuries in the fishing industry.