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The Coast Guard is trying to complete its first draft of the Alternate Safety Compliance program by January 1, 2017, with flooding as one of the predominant issues. Photo courtesy of the US Coast Guard.

Safety training, safety products, safety research and the cooperation of commercial fishing industry stakeholders are all contributing to reducing the risk of injuries and fatalities in the workplace.

Injury Epidemiologist Devin L. Lucas of the Alaska office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) headed up a report, recently published by NIOSH, titled Assessment of Safety in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island crab Fleet which looked at three different outcomes; fatal and non-fatal work-related injuries as well as vessel disasters.

The report covers the period 2005-2013. Data was gathered from reports made to the US Coast Guard. This assessment is part of a 10-year North Pacific Fisheries Management Council review of the Fisheries Management Plan. "One of the major findings in this report, as well as others NIOSH has published before, is that fatalities have dropped significantly during the period we studied," says Lucas. "In fact, there was only one fatality in the bering sea crab fleet in the time period of the study." A stark contrast to an average of eight fatalities per year in the 1990s.

Researchers believe there are several reasons for the decline. Certainly changes in the fisheries management plan for the fleet have improved safety. Safety culture and perceptions of risk within the fleet have also contributed to improvements, as well as Coast Guard safety programs that help vessels review their stability reports and encourage vessels to go out in accordance with the loading criteria in their stability reports – so a combined effort of industry, Coast Guard and fisheries management is working.

In fact, overall safety has improved since the year-2000 implementation of the "At-the-Dock Stability and Safety Compliance Check" and the fisheries becoming rationalized in 2005 – that's when the derby style of fishing was replaced with a quota system. "We're not talking about just a decline in the number of fatalities which could be influenced by the number of fishermen working in the industry," explains Lucas. "We calculate a rate that takes into account the number of workers in the industry each year, and even as that declines, we've seen this reduction in risk."

When it comes to serious, non-fatal injuries, the report found the highest number came from fractures suffered by deckhands while working with the gear, most commonly while moving crab pots around on deck. "Vessel motion can cause unsecured pots to move abruptly, striking crewmembers on deck," the study reveals. Additionally, stacking or launching pots can be hazardous; even very minor mistakes can cause serious injuries. The report recommends that procedures for moving and securing pots be reviewed by crew regularly and that every crewmember receive training on safe work practices and safety awareness while working on deck.

Vessel casualties reported include those having occurred due to loss of propulsion, loss of power, fires or flooding as well as sinkings. "We found that the most serious vessel casualties such as those in the 90s were the leading cause of death," says Lucas. "But we found there were no disasters at all during the study period." The report also provides recommendations for making additional improvements such as the wearing of Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) among crewmembers – the single fatality noted in the report happened due to a fall overboard – the individual was not wearing a PFD at the time.

Half of fishing vessel losses nationally are due to flooding/stability problems, according to Jerry Dzugan, executive director of AMSEA (Alaska Marine Safety Education Association). AMSEA runs a one-day Upright and Watertight Stability Awareness class which teaches fishermen the effects of the center of gravity, free surface effect, and the effect on stability of lifting loads on deck. "We have a number of hands-on activities we do in the workshop," he says.

Dzugan uses a Plexiglas rocker with an inclinometer on it that acts like a vessel so that students can visually see the difference in its rolling motion when weights are placed down low or high. "If the class is held in Sitka, we also have a model boat we float in a tub of water," he says. "It looks like a 584-foot Seiner shrunk to about four feet. We can flood different holds and put weights on it. We can fill the holds halfway, and because the free surface from the water is so great, we can actually make it capsize by rolling it just a few degrees," he explains. "We do pre and post tests before and after the class to measure participant knowledge, which generally increases from about 60 to over 90 percent."

Dzugan is planning to also give the stability class to the Dungeness fleet in Oregon due to the fact that lot of capsizing occurred this winter. "It's one of the top three deadliest catches for any fishery in the US," he says. Boats were lost crossing the bar this winter. Crossing the bar and watching the weather and tides are important to staying safe. "In some cases, you're better off leaving your pots outside before you run into the bar if the weather is particularly marginal and going out and picking them up when the weather is better – if Fish and Game allows that," he says. Hand steering instead of using the autopilot while crossing the bar is often safer, he explains. "Hand steering can anticipate waves which an autopilot cannot do and help prevent you from broaching in a wave."

A recent publication on the West Coast Dungeness crab fleet looked at the 12-year period between 2002 and 2014 in the Washington, Oregon and California regions. The paper, titled Reported Traumatic Injuries Among West Coast Dungeness crab Fishermen, 2002–2014 was part of a larger research project carried out by Oregon State University collaborating with NIOSH. Data on fatal injuries was compiled through a surveillance system managed by NIOSH and data on non-fatal injuries was manually abstracted from Coast Guard investigation reports.

The paper reports on the 28 fatal and 45 non-fatal injuries during the period in the Dungeness crab fleet. The majority of fatalities were due to vessel disasters (71 percent); 47 percent of non-fatal injuries occurred while hauling gear on deck. Not surprisingly, the most frequent body part injured (48 percent) was the upper extremities, with fractures being the most common. General statistics reveal: "The overall fatality rate during this time period was 209 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers and the rate of nonfatal injury was 3.4 per 1,000 full-time equivalent workers."

[Editor's note: Occupational fatalities are reported by 100,000 FTEs while non-fatal injuries are generally more prevalent so are reported by 1,000 FTEs.]

Oregon State University's Laurel Kincl, Assistant Professor, Environmental and Occupational Health, College of Public Health and Human Sciences, who leads the study, says focus groups were also held to share results with fishermen and get their feedback and input into safety and how to prevent injuries while fishing.

"When the fishermen were preparing their gear back in October, November and December, we collected a survey to learn about what injuries have occurred but also their opinions about safety and what they think keeps them safe," she says. "We don't have those results yet but what we're hoping to get at is some of the reasons that fishermen think are related to their injuries. With 45 non-fatal injuries, it's hard to identify patterns. We're also hoping that by engaging the fishermen and sharing what we find, that they can make decisions on best practice based on their fleet."

While studies are helping put together the numbers on workplace injuries and fatalities in the crab fleet, the US Coast Guard Alternate Safety Compliance program is continuing to gather momentum. Back in 2010, Congress mandated that the Coast Guard come up with alternate safety compliance programs. There was a select group of vessels this applies to – vessels 25 years of age or older and more than 50 feet in length, that operate beyond three nautical miles from shore or the territorial baseline.

The program is being phased in, and each fishery will have its own set of guidelines within it. The Coast Guard is trying to complete its first draft of the ASC program by January 1, 2017, and this has meant holding meetings with different commercial fleet representatives to get their input. Recently, meetings were held in Newport, Oregon, Kodiak, Alaska and Seattle, Washington, Westport, Washington, and Half Moon Bay, California.

"We're trying to address a base plan that covers the whole Pacific area," says Troy Rentz, USCG 13th District Alternate Compliance Coordinator. "The main problems we're having are flooding, falls overboard, grounding and fire, and we've been taking this information to the meetings and proposing some methods to address those hazards or how to more effectively implement the safety measures on board different types of vessels."

All the information from these meetings will be consolidated, then one final meeting with a final review from industry will be done, hopefully later this year, before it goes to Coast Guard Headquarters for consideration.

"We'll be able to make revisions to the plan afterward," says Rentz. "By no means will it be a final because there are things we want to keep improving upon. We know there are some fleets that are grounding more often than others – the question becomes is this a problem with fisheries operating closer to shore or is it a problem for all our fishing fleets? We're also trying to determine the frequency of exams. There is a lot of work to do yet, but there will be terms we'll look at during our dockside exams, at dry dock, etc. I want to thank all the people that continue to come to the meetings. We're getting great input from commercial fishermen trying to help us make these new rules effective and efficient."

Karen Conrad, Executive Director of the Seattle-based North Pacific fishing vessel Owners Association (NPFVOA) attended the ASC Seattle meeting. Her work group discussed one of the NIOSH-identified hazards – man overboard. "One of the baselines is to have boats create a PFD policy. The next level is for each vessel group, e.g. processor, trawler or gilnetter sector, to produce a policy that best fits with their fishing operations," she explains. For instance, a gillnetting operation may have a policy to wear a PFD anytime a crewmember goes out on deck, whereas a processing vessel may require a PFD on the deck crew when working with gear. "Every sector should have a PFD policy that works best for their operation," says Conrad. "The main objective is to keep people safe and if they end up in the water, they are wearing a PFD."

Man overboard is a topic that's covered in Fremont Maritime's 5-day Basic Safety Training and 3-day Safety Training refresher courses. President Capt. Jon Kjaerulff says there are a number of recovery devices on the market that are discussed in the class. "That's one of the things we emphasize is that mariners should take ownership of their own safety," he says.

One recovery device in particular that Kjaerulff recommends is an AIS-based identification marker. It's worn on outer garments and will transmit a crewperson's position on AIS over a four-mile radius. "It's not only the people on your vessel who can look for you, any vessel will see this little life ring on their display, meaning somebody is overboard," he explains. March 1, 2016 was the US Coast Guard's deadline for fishing vessels 65 feet or over working in US navigable waters to have installed at least a Class B AIS system.

Mark Hansen from Vancouver-BC-based SurvitecGroup says an AIS personal locator beacon manufactured by McMurdo that SurvitecGroup has been carrying for several years was Transport Canada approved as of late last fall. "It's a really good safety feature for vessels that operate with crew on deck that don't have somebody watching them all the time," he says. I think it could be a big game changer and save a lot of people's lives."

Hansen says Survitec is now carrying a line of emergency breathing apparatuses (EBDs) manufactured by Ocenco, which can help crew escape when trapped in a vessel, particularly in fire situations. The product offers a timed cylinder with approximately 30 minutes of air supply. "If you were in the engine room or down below and you had to get out into open air, this would allow you to breathe," he says.

Life rafts, immersion suits, EPIRBs and flares are the items purchased most often, according to Hansen, but he'd like to see more commercial fishermen buying inflatable life jackets. "A life jacket is different than a PFD; the main difference is it will right an unconscious person in the water," he explains. "So if you were knocked out and fell overboard, it will right you so your airways stay clear."

Last November NIOSH created the Center for Maritime Safety and Health Studies to coordinate research efforts at the Institute for any maritime-related industry. This is an expansion that includes the commercial fishing Safety and Research and Design Program, but now will include addressing occupational safety and health research needs in water transportation, shipyard safety and health and other areas.

One challenge for Director Jennifer M. Lincoln is to become more familiar with the maritime industry, and determining what occupational safety and health issues need to be researched. Lincoln, a NIOSH injury epidemiologist, is past director of the NIOSH Alaska Pacific Office and established the commercial fishing safety research program.

"Some of the core areas we want to work in include fish processing and marine transportation – so understanding what's going on with offshore vessels, tug and tow vessels, and even looking at how OSHA defines maritime and understanding hazards in shipyards, marine terminals and longshoring. We could also work in areas including commercial diving as well as aquaculture," she says.

This chart shows the decline in injuries and fatalities after crab rationalization. Artwork courtesy of NIOSH.

Part of the tasks will include looking at existing data to see what the leading injuries and fatalities are and understand what the Coast Guard priorities are. "NIOSH doesn't have a mandate to do research in the maritime industry," says Lincoln. "As a research organization, we let the data drive what issues we look at, and we partner with industry that's affected to understand what we can do. It makes our work much more tailored and relevant."

Lincoln says she hopes the Maritime Center will play a large part in influencing industry adoption of safety measures in various sectors, and her ultimate goal is to be a connector for different individuals and organizations. "I also hope I can have some influence with universities in coastal communities that have large maritime industry sectors to do occupational safety and health research."


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