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January 16, 2013
Study finds commercial fishing is the most dangerous job; Handling 5 common hazards

Commercial fishing is tough work. The work surface is constantly wet, always moving, and buffeted by water and wind. Fishermen work long hours, sometimes with little sleep for long periods, in all kinds of weather. If they're injured on the job, their access to medical care is limited until the Coast Guard arrives.

So it's no wonder that commercial fishermen have had the highest fatal injury rate of any occupation since 2005. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of fatal injury for this group was 203.6 per 100,000 workers in 2009; the rate for all workers was 3.5.

Nearly 50 workers die of job-related injuries in the commercial fishing industry each year. Twenty percent of those fatalities (about nine per year) occur in West Coast fisheries, according to a 2010 study published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The deadliest catch on the West Coast is Dungeness crab—an important northern California catch. Between 2000 and 2009, 27 West Coast workers died fishing for Dungeness crab. Alaska and Oregon had the highest death rates among crab fishermen; California crabmen were the third most likely to die.

Practice tip

NIOSH also recommends that fishing vessels install emergency stop (e-stop) buttons on winches and other deck machinery to minimize injury hazards.

Costly mistakes

One reason fishing is so deadly is that the cost of common mistakes is much higher than in other workplaces. When workers in a factory become entangled, or are injured while repairing or resetting a piece of equipment, they may face crushing or amputation&$8212but they don't also face the risk of falling overboard and drowning, which is how 97 of the 334 U.S. commercial fishermen who died between 2003 and 2009 perished.

NIOSH found that from 2000 to 2009, the common hazards in this uncommon work environment included:

Trips and slips. The leading cause of death among fishermen was drowning. Most drownings in West Coast fisheries are the result of vessel disasters, but one-quarter were the result of falls overboard. On this coast, slips and trips were the leading cause of falls overboard.

Caught-in and struck-by injuries. The leading cause of falls overboard nationwide, and the second leading cause in the West, was entanglement in nets or gear that resulted in fishermen being dragged overboard.

Contact with objects or equipment. This common hazard was the leading cause of nonfatal injuries for commercial fishermen, responsible for one-third of nonfatal injuries. Fishermen are most likely to collide with containers used for catching or keeping fish.

Overexertion. The second leading cause of nonfatal injuries for fishermen throughout the U.S. was overexertion that led to sprains and strains.

Falls. The cages that crab fishermen use to catch crab are called "pots," and these pots are stacked on the deck of the ship when they are not in use. Fishermen climb onto these stacks to secure or retrieve pots. Falls from pots result in either overboard situations or falls to the deck, sometimes from a considerable height.

Common hazards, common solutions

The details may vary, but the solutions to these hazards are also common. NIOSH recommends that commercial fishermen:

Wear their PPE. Of the crab fishermen who fell overboard in the NIOSH study, half were not wearing life jackets or survival suits (called personal flotation devices or PFDs). According to NIOSH, "Wearing a PFD on deck is the single most important thing a fisherman can do to increase survivability following a fall overboard." Workers in all industries could benefit from wearing their personal protective equipment (PPE).

Receive appropriate training. Half of crab fishermen who drowned were wearing their PFDs, but most of them were not wearing their PFDs correctly. Like workers in other industries, commercial fishermen must be trained in the proper use, care, and maintenance of their protective gear, the proper operation of their equipment, and safe work practices.

Work together. Working alone on deck was a factor in more than half of overboard falls on the West Coast. Fishermen who fall overboard when no one else is around might not be found missing for hours. This happens in other industries where workers go out alone.

For potentially hazardous work or hazardous situations, workers should be sent out in pairs or teams, so help is available in an emergency. Working together can also help to prevent overexertion injuries.

Conduct emergency drills. Commercial fishermen should be ready to respond to a number of predictable emergencies, including sinking or capsizing, flooding, fire, and man overboard. Monthly drills would increase the odds that workers could respond quickly and correctly to these life-threatening situations.

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