Fishing Vessel Safety
June 1, 2018
Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in or around the industry knows that commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. In fact, the occupation had a work-related fatality rate of 86 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers in 2016, which is 23 times higher than the national average.
And although the numbers of deaths have steadily decreased in recent years, the National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH), has some suggestions for how the amount could be further decreased, including wider implementation of such equipment as lifeline tethers for workers and personal flotation devices, as well as man overboard alarms.
According to a newly released report by NIOSH, since the turn of the century, sinking vessels have caused the most fatalities in the industry, followed by falling from a fishing vessel. The report, which covers the years 2000-2016, analyzed data on unintentional fatal falls overboard in the US commercial fishing industry to identify gaps in the use of prevention strategies.
NIOSH, a Washington DC-based division of the Centers for Disease Control, has studied commercial fishing safety since the early 1990s, starting with Alaska and then expanding into a national program in 2007. The institute collects data on work-related fatalities in the industry and analyzes these data to describe fishing fatalities and identify risk factors.
Between 2000 and 2016, a total of 204 commercial fishermen died after unintentionally falling overboard, according to the data, the results of which were released April 27. The majority of the falls – 121 of 204, or 59.3 percent – weren’t witnessed by anyone, and 108 (89.3 percent) of victims weren’t found.
Among the 83 falls overboard that were witnessed, 56 rescue attempts were made, and 22 victims were recovered but couldn’t be resuscitated.
“The circumstances, rescue attempts, and limited use of lifesaving and recovery equipment indicate that efforts to reduce these preventable fatalities are needed during pre-event, event, and post-event sequences of falls overboard,” NIOSH stated in its report. “Vessel owners could consider strategies to prevent future fatalities, including lifeline tethers, line management, personal flotation devices, man-overboard alarms, recovery devices and rescue training.”
So what can be done to prevent falls overboard? Among the various strategies, primary ones recommended by NIOSH include: creating enclosed workspaces, raising the gunnels on vessels and using lifelines and tethers where possible.
The institute’s recommendations for vessel owners and operators include:
• Creation of a PFD policy for the crew while working on deck;
• Conducting monthly drills including abandon ship, flooding, fire, and man overboard;
• Installation of man overboard alarm systems, and man overboard retrieval devices;
• Adding emergency stop (e-stop) devices on hydraulic deck machinery to prevent entanglement injuries, and;
• Ensuring that all crew members have completed marine safety training within the past five years.
Workers in some fisheries are more exposed to entanglement dangers than are others due to differences in fishing methods, particularly those who work with lines while setting gear. And because of that, the operational safety institute says that engineering controls like line bins that catch excess line while hauling gear can control hazards by reducing the amount of line on deck.
“In addition,” the report continues, “enforcing drug- and alcohol-free policies on vessels might reduce the likelihood of crewmembers unintentionally falling from a vessel.”
Although federal regulations mandate that commercial fishing vessels carry a personal flotation device for each crewmember, there are no requirements for fishermen to wear them while working. Lack of PFD use is related, according to the NIOSH, to workers’ negative perceptions and attitudes toward PFDs. Although many fishermen recognize the effectiveness of PFDs to prevent drownings, some also have various issues with the devices, including discomfort, cost, work interference, and potential for entanglement. These issues, according to the institute, have stalled widespread adoption of PFDs throughout the commercial fishing industry.
“Attempts to increase PFD use should continue, particularly given the increased commercial availability of comfortable and workable PFDs,” the report states.
Use of another technology that hasn’t been widely adopted by the fishing industry despite its potential to save lives and be incorporated into work gear, is man-overboard alarms. The devices, small devices worn by a worker that, in the event of water immersion, relay a signal to a receiver on the vessel and sounds an alarm to alert possible rescuers.
Also, participation in marine safety training and drills can prepare crewmembers in man-overboard response and recovery.
“For fishermen who work alone, a reboarding ladder should be available on the vessel for self-rescue,” the NIOSH said in its report. “Some man-overboard alarms include engine shutoff features that would keep the vessel nearby to facilitate reboarding.”
Statistics show that during the 17 years of studies, 30 crewmembers who fell overboard were recovered onboard within an hour, but none could be resuscitated, which led to a conclusion by NIOSH that successful treatment might be more likely if professional medical assistance were possible, something that even the institute acknowledges could be a challenge when operating in remote locations, thus making a well-trained crew all the more important.
“Having first-aid trained crewmembers administer CPR, prevent further heat loss, and rewarm the victim is a priority,” the report states.
The institute also recommends that all fishermen:
• Take a marine safety class at least once every five years;
• Find a comfortable PFD and wear it on deck at all times;
• Conduct monthly drills including abandon ship, flooding, fire, and man overboard;
• Heed weather forecasts and avoid fishing in severe sea conditions;
• Maintain watertight integrity by inspecting and monitoring the hull of the vessel, ensuring that watertight doors and hatches are sealed, and inspecting and testing high water alarms regularly;
• Utilize a man overboard alarm system;
• Test immersion suits for leaks if operating in cold water.
“Although the overall decline in the number of fatal falls overboard is encouraging, these largely preventable events remain a leading contributor to commercial fishing deaths,” the NIOSH said. “Implementation of prevention strategies discussed in this report by vessel owners could continue this positive trend and result in substantial safety improvements within the industry. Future research can include activities to understand barriers to adoption of these prevention strategies, particularly in fisheries where these events occur frequently.”
The study found that although the number of falls overboard declined between 2000 and 2016, it’s unclear if risk also dropped during that time period; the report describes patterns of falls overboard and subsequent rescue attempts. There were 16 overboard fatalities in 2000, and although the number of fatalities rose to as high as 20 in some years and fell in others, the average number steadily trended downward over time until reaching nine in 2016.
Of the total number of accidental fatal falls, 84 (nearly 45 percent) were between the ages of 25 and 44, and 42.2 percent (79) were between the ages of 45 and 64. Next was the 24 and under age group, with 17 fatalities (9.1 percent). Ninety-nine percent of the fatalities were men, and 50 percent were white, followed by race unknown at 29.4 percent and Asian at 20.1 percent.
Almost 60 percent of the workers (120) were deckhands, while 38.7 percent (79) were not, according to the recently released findings. The remaining percentage held various other positions.
Lack of job experience did not seem to play a large role in the accidents, as 29.8 percent of all who went overboard had 11-20 years of work experience, followed by 28.7 percent who had 21 or more years’ of experience. Workers with less than a year’s experience accounted for 11.7 percent of the statistics, while the number of years’ experience was unknown for 110
of the victims, about 54 percent of the total.
The cause of falls were mainly a loss of balance (32.2 percent) the study found, followed by a trip or slip at 31.5 percent and gear entanglement at 20.8 percent. An even 27 percent of the causes were unknown.
Also according to the report, during the 17-year period studied, 59 percent of falls overboard in commercial fishing were not witnessed and none of the victims were wearing a life jacket. A man-overboard alarm was only used in a single event.
The NIOSH said that a variety of strategies can be implemented to prevent future fatalities, including reducing deck hazards, increasing the use of life jackets, man-overboard alarms, and recovery devices, and training crewmembers on resuscitation and treatment.
But part of the solution is also quality equipment.
Shawn Simmons of Marine Safety Services, a marine safety equipment supplier that has locations in Seattle and Dutch Harbor, Alaska, told Fishermen’s News that a change in the number of incidents and accidents is clear. More and better safety equipment is part of the reason.
“Rafts, EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons) and survival suits are the most popular with our customers,” said Simmons, who is president of the family owned company that has sold, rented and serviced equipment for over three decades.
“Improvements in the safety equipment that’s being used in field has contributed to this decrease,” Simmons explained. “Life jackets are better, more people have survival suits, locating beacons can pinpoint a person’s location much more accurately, in some cases within feet, and life rafts are on more vessels.”
Mark Edward Nero has been a professional journalist since 1995 and has covered the maritime shipping industry since 2002. Nero, who is based in Long Beach, California, was previously a reporter with the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and his work has also appeared in numerous other publications, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Daily News.