Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Wilderness Medicine for the Commercial Fishing Industry

By Laurel Kincl, PhD and Todd Miner, Ed.D FAWN


June 1, 2018

The need for first aid in a commercial fishing environment is much different from typical land-based situations, and more closely resembles "wilderness" first aid, and is being developed for the commercial fishing environment. Artwork courtesy of Oregon State University.

Commercial fishing is a dangerous and challenging occupation. You know all about that; everyone wants to be safe, but the risk of injury is always there. Adding to the challenge of being at sea in hazardous conditions is that it's hard to find first aid training that fits the needs of commercial fishermen. The US Coast Guard requires that one or more crew members be first aid and CPR trained, but most first aid courses are "land-based" and assume you have quick access to an ambulance and hospital – not what you experience at sea, in poor weather and rough seas, working long hours in physically demanding tasks. First aid for commercial fishing is more like what is called "wilderness first aid" – first aid for settings when medical help might be a long time coming. Wilderness first aid is a growing specialty and has been used in other settings like sailing and mountaineering, but has not been developed specifically for commercial fishing.

When we met with commercial fishermen, they told us that the first aid classes offered in their communities were not relevant to the emergencies they faced at sea. So we developed a new course we call Fishermen First Aid and Safety Training (FFAST). Oregon State University and the Oregon Sea Grant did the development and testing of the course, with partners from the University of Colorado School of Medicine's Department of Emergency Medicine.

Designing FFAST

Before putting the FFAST together, we asked 426 fishermen about their injuries and what they do to stay healthy. Out of the 65 total injuries crabbers reported, 36 were severe enough that the fishermen took time off work or changed the way they worked. Deckhands had 57 of the 65 injuries. The most common limiting injury was a sprain/strain followed by fractures and cuts. The hands, arms and shoulder were the most common body part injured. Handling the gear on deck and hauling the gear were the activities most related to the injuries reported. Fishermen told us that drills and preparation were important for staying safe while fishing. We used this information to make FFAST as relevant as possible for commercial fishing.

FFAST was designed to customize existing wilderness first aid training to better prepare fishermen to prevent and treat injuries they are likely to encounter at sea. To encourage fishermen's participation, the curriculum was also designed to meet the minimum US Coast Guard requirements for on-board first aid training. FFAST complements a US Coast Guard required training commonly known as the Drill Conducting Course, where fishermen learn how to conduct safety drills on a regular basis to prepare the crew for emergencies. The training took into account the small crews, common injuries, vessel environments, cold water, rough seas, and delayed emergency response times typical to Pacific Northwest fisheries.

The FFAST course takes 16 hours, and includes basic CPR. FFAST has presentations, hands-on skill development, and scenarios in which knowledge and skills are put together to respond to a simulated accident or illness. The course focuses on preparing fishermen to respond to common fishery injuries and illnesses ranging from seasickness or chapped hands all the way to life threatening injuries such as crush injuries or hypothermia. Topics were made specific to fishing situations, such as the challenges of safely moving patients onboard rolling vessels in tight quarters. To pass the course students must demonstrate basic skill and scenario proficiency and pass a final exam with a minimum score of 70 percent.

FFAST also includes information about what can be done before an event happens. Injury prevention strategies were discussed that were based on real-world incidents and injuries from the crab fleet. This conversation in the class helped fishermen identify things they could consider to control the injury risk on their vessels. Fishermen are great problem solvers!

Testing FFAST with Fishermen

The first FFAST classes were introduced in 2016 in Newport and Astoria, Oregon, and a second Newport class was held in 2017. Classes took place just before Dungeness crab openings, when fishermen were preparing for the season but still available. Participants were recruited through the connections that Oregon Sea Grant has with the commercial fishing communities in these locations, word of mouth and social media. Between the three offerings of the FFAST course, there were forty-nine participants from the commercial fishing industry. We asked first aid skill and knowledge questions before and after the course to evaluate what they learned. On the questions given before the course, the average score was 44 percent; and by the end of the course the average score was 90 percent. Fishermen learned a great deal about key concepts.

Participants also evaluated the course. They responded to questions such as "How do you rate the information in today's training?" "Would you recommend this training to other fishermen?" and "How useful for your work will the information you learned today be?" on a scale of 1-5 (1=best, 5= worst). The average was 1.4 – a very respectful rating from fishermen.

In the evaluation, fishermen also expressed the importance of safety. Fully 94 percent of participants said that they strongly agreed that "I feel that it is important to maintain safety at all times while fishing" and "I feel that it is important to reduce the risk of accidents and incidents while fishing".

When fishermen were asked what they liked most about the FFAST training, many said they appreciated the hands-on elements of the training and use of real-world commercial fishing situations, with one participant saying that the course was, "very in depth, touching on all types of injuries that might be seen while fishing." Another mentioned that the "informal style was good for creating a comfortable learning environment for a bunch of dirty crabbers."

Next Steps

The reaction to FFAST has been very positive. Our collaborators at Sea Grant are still hearing from fishermen over a year later about how much they learned from the course. One even said that this is the first training he's ever done, outside of his military days, that he thought prepared him for situations that he might actually encounter while fishing.

Our next step is to gain Coast Guard certification for FFAST. Once FFAST materials are finalized and Coast Guard-approved, we want to train local first aid instructors, and/or motivated commercial fishermen, to become familiar with wilderness medicine and use the FFAST materials to be FFAST instructors. In this way, the training can be offered broadly to all commercial fishermen in the Pacific Northwest and on every US coast.

The best first aid is prevention. When that is not enough, your first aid skills can help make a bad situation better. Specific and relevant first aid and safety training for the commercial fishery industry could go a long way toward reducing the number and severity of injuries, and to saving lives, in one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. Eliminate injuries and hazardous conditions whenever possible in the first place – stay safe out there!

For more information about FFAST and suggestions about finding or starting this type of training in your community, you can get in touch with us via our website You can also find other resources on our website such as a guide to building a First Aid kit for commercial fishing. Using this guide we had a highly successful First Aid kit building party with Newport Fishermen's Wives. You too can organize such events to get lower cost and well-equipped kits on vessels!

Laurel Kincl is an Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Oregon State University. Todd Miner is a Senior Instructor and Education Director of Wilderness & Environmental Medicine at University of Colorado School of Medicine.

We would like to acknowledge the contribution of our team members for making FFAST development and testing possible: Viktor Bovbjerg, Kaety Jacobson, Amelia Vaughan, Hayley Strenke, Melissa Myers.


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