Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Fishing Vessel Safety: Staying Alive in a Hazardous Environment


June 1, 2019

There are a number of steps that can be taken to prevent falls overboard including eliminating or reducing the hazards on the deck. Photo courtesy of the US Coast Guard.

Commercial fishing remains one of the most dangerous occupations in America, particularly in Alaska and Pacific Northwest. The industry has a fatality rate that is now 29 times higher than the national average, according to data from the National Institute for National Safety and Occupational Health, or NIOSH.

But although fatal accidents on fishing boats remain far higher than those of other occupations – and are projected to remain that way for the foreseeable future – experts told Fishermen's News that some fundamental steps can cut down on fatals, including greater use of life jackets and PFDs; reducing deck hazards; and not becoming complacent at work.

"Throughout the entire maritime industry – that includes recreational and commercial – we're always going to advocate for PFDs or life jackets," Robert Craighead, a maritime safety transportation specialist in the US Coast Guard's fishing vessel Safety Division, said. "Having a life jacket is probably the single-most important device readily available for the folks who work on these vessels."

Although the devices can literally be lifesavers, some fishing vessel workers have been reluctant to use them during their daily work, with one reason cited being that the devices can be awkward to move around in.

"I understand that life jackets can be cumbersome," Craighead said, "but while you're required to have a certain type of PFD on your vessel, that doesn't mean you can't have other types that may be reasonably worn, whatever your working conditions are."

Jerry Dzugan, executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, or AMSEA, said that a NIOSH report found that 238 fishermen died from going overboard their vessel in the past 10 years or so.

"The one thing that all those people who died falling overboard had in common was they were not wearing life jackets," Dzugan said. "And the man overboards usually occurred when they were alone on deck, or they were not being observed."

Dzugan (pronounced Dugan) and Craighead both mentioned that there have been enough advances in PFD styles in recent years that eliminate, or at least cut back, on the awkwardness of the safety gear.

"The new thing that's happened in the last several years is the improvement in designs for life jackets and PFDs that are very comfortable to wear, which they were not a few decades ago," said Dzugan, who's been executive director of AMSEA, a Sitka-based training organization, since January 1987.

"I think a lot of the resistance is still there because people don't know about the availability of some of those PFDs that are wearable," he commented. "One of the things we're doing in our education efforts, is showing fishermen wearable PFDs that are available and how they don't have snag hazards, they're easy to work in, they're comfortable, and some of them even protect you from the jostling and the bulwarks that you sometimes wind up getting flailed against while working on a moving platform like on the deck of a boat."

Man Overboards

Mike Rudolph, a fishing vessel safety examiner with the USCG's Marine Safety Unit in Portland, does safety exams and training on the Oregon coast and in Southwest Washington State. He told Fishermen's News that falls overboard are the second-biggest safety issue that he typically sees, after crossing hazardous bars. He said he has often heard people say that they don't need to wear flotation devices because of their confidence in their swimming skills and that if they wound up in the water, they feel that they'd be able to keep themselves afloat while trying to get back on the vessel.

This line of thought is short-sighted, he said.

"If you fall in the water, your next job not only is to stay afloat, but to get out of the water, get back on the boat," Rudolph explained. "And if you're wearing a flotation (device) then you can concentrate your time and energies on just getting back onboard the boat, you won't have to worry about staying afloat."

The other issue after the person falling overboard is being able to retrieve them from the water.

"We had an incident where the person fell over and the one remaining deckhand on the vessel could not recover the person back onto the boat," Rudolph said. "They lacked equipment to pull the person back in, and the person died right next to the boat."

To prevent such scenarios from unfolding, Rudolph said, there are a number of steps that can be taken.

"Number one is to eliminate or reduce the hazards on the deck. Slips, trips and falls, those things that can get people. Keeping your deck clear of equipment and trip hazards, watching out for snag hazards...and equipment that could put you into the water," he said. Other tips include having crew members watch out for each other when on deck, and to be sure to tell someone where they're going.

"A lot of vessels will have a camera system on deck so the skipper can monitor and see if something happens," he said.

Rudolph and others said that the tide is turning regarding wearing PFDs.

"I think the trend of fishermen wearing life jackets is starting to increase," Craighead said. "Some people don't want to wear them because they're cumbersome; others have just made it a common practice in their day-to-day work."

Rudolph agreed.

"The biggest change that I have seen, especially on the Oregon coast, is the use of lifejackets and other flotation while people are working on deck. We've seen a safety culture shift to where 15 years ago, hardly anybody wore any kind of flotation on deck, it was kind of looked down upon as a sign of weakness or lack of machismo," he said. "But now, we find more and more people are choosing lifejackets or flotation devices that are comfortable, that don't get in the way. On some vessels, they actually employ a 100 percent (PFD) policy while you're on deck. That's encouraging, we like to see that."

Safety Hazards

Jake Garibyan, a raft technician with the Seattle offices of safety equipment service company Marine Safety Services, said that the biggest safety hazard that he sees in commercial fishing is complacency.

"Just being too comfortable with your environment around you," he said. "Basically not paying attention to the way the equipment's set up, where you have the equipment placed. Is the equipment properly inspected? Have you taken a look to familiarize yourself with it? Yeah, it's there, but do you know how to use it?"

Complacency can lead to unwise decisions during certain activities that require great care and knowledge, such as crossing ocean bars.

"There are currents, there are waves, there are things that happen that can catch people off guard," Rudolph said. "Some people are very knowledgeable about their local areas, and some people may not understand the dynamics and it will sneak up and get people and cause their vessels to capsize, or they'll lose propulsion and then cast themselves upon the rocks. Understanding these bar areas is an important component that people should understand."

In case a dire situation does arise, Craighead said, it's imperative that a vessel's Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, is functioning properly. Since October 2018, the Coast Guard has had more than 100 false alerts caused by malfunctioning EPIRBs, he said.

"Certainly there are some that are real-time emergencies, but by and large, we're seeing a lot of false alerts and this often has to do with maybe mishandling the device, like it's getting hit by weather or being bumped by a crew member, it's being set off for other reasons," he said.

"We treat every one of these alerts as an actual distress, so we have to track down the owners of these signals and make sure these people aren't in actual distress," he explained. "The importance of having your EIPIR properly registered can't be overstated."

Garibyan said that it's also important to keep other onboard equipment from malfunctioning.

"The main thing we've been seeing in the commercial industry that they're leaning toward is arctic protections, where they lay a heat blanket on the life raft so that they're not iced up and frozen, 'cause you do have to pay attention to that equipment, so it doesn't get iced over or stuck to the cradle," he said. "It's your responsibility to make sure that in a situation where the raft needs to be used, that you can actually make it work, it's not frozen over, encapsulated in ice."

Drills and Training

Dzugan said that although commercial fishing is still highly dangerous compared to most jobs in North America, it's actually becoming less so.

"It's been the most hazardous occupation in the US consistently for a long time, but because of safety equipment and requirements and because of training availability, the fatalities have gone down tremendously in the last 30 years," Dzugan said. "There's been a big improvement in lessening the number of fatalities. Where we used to have about 100 people a year die, the last few years, it's been in the 20s or less."

"The best form of safety, of compliance," Rudolph said, "is to take care of yourself and do what you need to do to help make sure that you mitigate those risks and you're safe on the boat, and hopefully you don't need a regulation, you don't need someone else telling you that you need to do 'x, y and z' to make your operation safe and reduce those injuries and casualties."

He encourages people to practice drills and train for possible safety incidents, such as recovering a man overboard, life raft launches, donning immersion suits, abandoning ship, vessel fires and flooding.

"Continue to do your drills and practice, practice, practice," he said.

Dzugan said that with AMSEA having trained tens of thousands of fishermen over the decades, most of the people that were trained and were surveyed afterward implemented changes to their safety practices, and this has either prevented accidents or prevented deaths during an emergency.

"We've being keeping count and we've got more than 200 people that we know of who were trained and survived," he said. "Training does make a difference."


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