Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Safety Training & Equipment


An American Seafoods deckhand, about to hook a Gilson into a Caught End to lift the bag, is properly equipped for safety with a hardhat, Stearns PFD/Life Vest, and an Alert 2 Man Overboard Alarm in the black pouch on the right shoulder of the PFD. Photo by Gary Gray courtesy of American Seafoods.

Something no fisherman ever wants to hear is “man overboard.” Nor does he ever want to find himself in the water fighting for survival after a fall off the boat deck.

From 2000 to 2011, 182 US commercial fishermen died after falling overboard – none were wearing Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs). Although wearing a PFD is not yet required by government regulations, they can go a long way to helping prevent more unfortunate losses.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a non-regulatory federal government agency that conducts scientific research on occupational safety, carried out a two-part study in 2008 and 2009 that reveals prevailing perceptions about PFDs from Alaskan fishermen.

Researchers surveyed more than 400 fishermen, including bering sea crabbers, Bearing Sea trawlers, longliners off the South Central Gulf of Alaska and drift gillnetters in Bristol Bay. Each of the four groups were asked about their perceptions of the risk of falling overboard, their experience with falls overboard and their attitudes and beliefs about PFDs.

“Based on those findings, our next step was thinking about these fishermen’s’ conceptions about PFDs, realizing that maybe their perceptions were somewhat antiquated,” says Devin Lucas, Epidemiologist with NIOSH who led the study.

The second part of the study involved sending out six modern PFDs of various types and styles to 200 fishermen on the same types of fishing vessels. Each group agreed to wear each PFD for a month on deck while they worked, then fill out evaluations of the products that covered concerns such as how bulky it was, how restricting it was, how it chaffed their skin and how easy it was to clean.

“We found that indeed there were PFDs that each group selected and rated very highly for out-of-water comfort and satisfaction, and they were different by gear type,” says Lucas. “So it means to us that there is not a single type of PFD that will be universally acceptable for all fishermen but that fishermen on different types of fishing vessels have different preferences for PFDs.”

Sixty percent of bering sea crabbers reported they believe PFDs help save lives, yet only 50 percent sometimes wear them. The group’s two top rated products were the Mustang and Stearns Inflatable Suspenders, which they said don’t snag on gear and are comfortable to wear.

In the longliner group, 60 percent said they never wear a PFD and reported issues around wearing PFDs close to the gear while on a crowded deck as well as the possibility of a PFD snagging on the longline. The Mustang Inflatable Suspenders were the only choice they preferred.

Close to 75 percent of gillnetters voiced concerns over PFDs snagging or getting entangled in gear. And 55 percent of the group has never worn a PFD. Their top pick was the Regatta raingear with built-in foam flotation, with the Stearns Inflatable Suspenders also listed as a preference.

The study found trawler fishermen have the highest rates and most positive attitudes toward PFD use, which stands to reason because the vessels are typically owned by large companies with corporate safety programs that require their crews to wear PFDs. Although gear entanglement was an issue for the trawler group, 51 percent of them reported that they always wear PFDs. This group also preferred the Mustang and Stearns Inflatable Suspenders, Stearns foam work vest and the Regatta raingear with built-in flotation in the bibs.

Lucas says while immersion suits meet the Coast Guard requirement for having PFDs onboard and stowed on fishing vessels, they don’t help prevent fatal falls overboard. “In the last few years, we’ve seen boat owners and vessel operators in different fleets throughout the state of Alaska adopt vessel requirements for PFD use and in many cases, it has been as a direct result of this project,” he says. “And that’s one of our main recommendations is that every vessel owner or operator develop a PFD policy for their boat and provide PFDs for their crew and mandate their use.”

According to Lucas, the pros and cons of inflatable versus inherently buoyant PFDs should also be weighed when considering options. “An inflatable PFD, which is easier to wear and work in, needs to be checked for punctures and the CO2 cartridge needs to be checked for corrosion to ensure it’s armed and ready to activate when required,” he says. “Whereas a foam PFD will still work if there are small punctures in the foam, so it requires less maintenance, but the downside is it may be less comfortable to work in.” More on the NIOSH PFD study results can be found at

“The captains on our vessels drill regularly for man overboard,” says Lurilla Lee, Vice President of Vessel Safety for Trident Seafoods. “They practice for it. And we require everyone to wear PFDs when they’re working on deck.”

Trident Seafoods trains their employees on safety in a variety of ways. They often use training organizations like the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA), North Pacific fishing vessel Owner’s Association (NPFVOA), Fremont Maritime, and also train in-house. Pre-departure safety orientations and safety drills are carried out on all vessels, which safety supervisors observe whenever possible, then everyone critiques the process. Along with carrying out annual reviews, the company’s vessel captains are also required to send in monthly safety reports that itemize what safety drills they ran.

“We work closely with the vessel crews, captains and mates on all our vessels, and on the factory trawlers, factory managers, superintendents on the floating processors,” says Lee. “We go up to Alaska, visit them out in the field, meet them at offloads, where they’re tendering or offloading their catch or go out on the processing vessels while they’re processing and do safety audits. If we find anything, we do a short report and then follow up to make sure any problems are addressed.”

The company also has the vessels perform pre- and post-season safety quick checks for major items like flares and EPIRBS with batteries that may go out of date. Additionally, Trident provides all workers with task-appropriate personal protective equipment such as head protection, safety vests, footwear, raingear, gloves and eye protection.

Lee says in the past few years, she’s observed a significant change in safety awareness and safety culture. “It hasn’t happened overnight but we can use PFDs, for example. Here at Trident, at first, there was a lot of grousing about wearing them, and now it’s just second nature.”

Alan Davis of American Seafoods says he thinks one of the biggest advances in commercial fishing has been in the variety and availability of PFDs. He says the company has added strobes and man overboard alarms to its PFDs to help speed locating a crewmember should they fall overboard unseen in the dark.

Davis notes a key safety trend change in the catcher processor sector. “Since the 90s, the focus was on accident response, including the use of life rafts, survival suits and EPIRBS. These are all things that would be needed if a vessel sank. “Now we are also focusing on preventing accidents from occurring and minimizing their impact if they do occur,” he says. “For example, in order to reduce splash injuries from chemicals, we have added and use mixing stations that mix and meter chemicals without having to use the traditional method of pouring chemicals from a big bucket into a little bucket and diluting them manually.”

In addition to the company’s standard vessel emergency orientation, its crews regularly receive a broad safety orientation that covers a wide variety of subject matter from anti-harassment to fall protection in Confined Space Entry and Ventilation. The company also works with the NPFVOA and Fremont Maritime to offer crew training on subjects such as damage control, Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, rescue swimming and fire fighting.

“Annually we gather the emergency squad from each vessel and send them to one of the local fire schools for a day of hands-on fire-fighting in a simulator using live fire or we bring the instructor to the vessels to do some extra intensive drills onboard prior to departure,” says Davis. “We have found that this not only increases everyone’s vigilance in fire prevention but also helps assure our crew are physically and mentally prepared should a fire occur.”

About eight months ago, Fremont Maritime in Seattle introduced its 4-day stand-alone Advanced Firefighting course, which Director Jon Kjaerulff, says has had a very good reception from the factory fleet and processing ships.

“The course is not required for the fishing industry, but it is if people are going to upgrade their licence or obtain an original mariner licence,” he says. Classes are held at the school’s Fishermen’s Terminal location or onboard client vessels where Fremont also helps clients develop a good fire response plan, supervise them running fire-fighting scenarios and help them evaluate their procedures.

Julie Keim, owner of Compass Courses based in Edmonds, Washington reports the industry’s safety culture has changed so much over the years that the company works hard to ensure they can give crews the latest in safety equipment and training so they can make good decisions in crisis situations. “It’s great to be able to demonstrate ways to be innovative and creative in delivering drills to the crew,” says Keim.

Their Basic Safety Training Course consists of consists of Fire Fighting, Personal Survival, First Aid & CPR, Personal Safety & Social Responsibilities topics. “It takes the Drill Instructor course to a new level of awareness and allows crewmembers to experience things they wouldn’t normally do in their drills, such as fighting live fires and getting out of life rafts,” she says.

AMSEA has trained about 2,000 people per year in their Drill Conductor course. “It helps meet the training requirement for fishing vessels, not just documented vessels,” says Jerry Dzugan, Executive Director, “but it’s also being expanded to include state-numbered vessels beyond three miles, which is a state regulatory process that will be taking place.” Dzugan says there is a big push to train instructors. “Last year, we did five, week-long Marine Safety Instructor Training courses, training people to be instructors of drill conductors in Alaska, Seattle, California and Florida.”

Since the beginning of 2013, AMSEA has been offering ergonomics training to commercial fishermen. The two-hour course provides an overview of body mechanics and the science of how muscles work to lift and move. An EMG meter (much like an EKG monitor) is hooked up to the back, hands and arms of participants. It measures the amount of stresss muscles put out for a given lift or movement so that “when you lean over to pick something up, you can actually hear the muscles contracting and stressing,” says Dzugan.

Generic stretching exercises geared toward commercial fishermen are also included for the main muscle groups. According to Dzugan, about 40 percent of the payouts the Fishermen’s Fund in Alaska gives out are due to muscular skeletal disorders, mostly lower back, shoulders and wrists.”

A collection of photos is also used to demonstrate how some fishermen have made ergonomic changes to their vessels, for instance by creating their own tools with curves in the handle so they don’t have to bend their wrists. Or they’ve made adjustments and modifications to their deck or working gear so that it’s more efficient while helping prevent injuries.

Dzugan says in some cases, fishermen can catch four times more fish as a result of making ergonomic improvements, because they can spend more time with their fishing gear in the water. He also notes that he’s seen young fishermen in their 20s have their fishing careers end due to work-related injuries.

“It’s a problem that both young and old fishermen alike need to pay attention to,” he says. “You can do things the way you’ve always done them and take medication to work through the pain, but if you work in the off season or even during the season to make some small ergonomic changes, you can make your work easier for you.”

AMSEA’s course on damage control and fishing vessel stability makes use of the US Coast Guard damage control trailer to address the fact that 50 percent of all the fatalities in the US commercial fishing industry are a result of stability issues. Photo by of Reid Brewer.

Additionally, AMSEA is also providing its ergonomic course to a group of NOAA fisheries researchers who also encounter muscular skeletal difficulties when sorting fish and lifting baskets of fish. “Anybody who works on a fish boat or in a fish plant suffers from a lot of the same problems, a lot of lifting and moving that is sort of unnecessary,” says Dzugan.

AMSEA’s Upright and Watertight course on damage control and fishing vessel stability helps address the fact that 50 percent of all the fatalities in the US commercial fishing industry are a result of stability issues. The 6- to 8-hour course offers instruction on how loading and free surface effect can affect a vessel.

It’s a hands-on course. “We get participants to work in a damage control trailer with a number of flooding problems and show them damage control techniques,” says Dzugan. “Then we have model boats we play with in the water just to show them the different effects of stability and what the roll period means. And we talk about the center of gravity, center of buoyancy, metacenter, GM and righting arm so they can better understand what a change in the roll period of their own vessels can mean.


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