NIOSH Highlights Commercial Fishing Dangers for Workers' Memorial Day

Researchers analyzed 204 commercial fishing fatalities during 2000-2016 and found none of the victims wore a personal flotation device when they died, and the majority of falls overboard were not witnessed.

New research spotlighted on the NIOSH Science Blog in connection with April 28's Workers' Memorial Day is focused on falls overboard in the commercial fishing industry, which is one of the most dangerous among all U.S. industries. The data are contained in an article in the current issue of CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report titled "Fatal Falls Overboard in Commercial Fishing — United States, 2000–2016."

The authors are epidemiologist Samantha L. Case, MPH, Jennifer M. Lincoln, Ph.D., and Devin L. Lucas, Ph.D., of the NIOSH Western States Division.

Case, in the blog post, explains that commercial fishing had a work-related fatality rate 23 times higher than for all workers in 2016, and that falling from a fishing vessel was responsible for the second-highest number of fatalities in the industry after vessel sinking events.

They analyzed data on 2000-2016 unintentional fatal falls overboard in the U.S. commercial fishing industry to identify gaps in the use of prevention strategies. A total of 204 commercial fishermen died from unintentionally falling overboard during the period, with fatalities occurring most frequently on the East Coast (30 percent), followed by the Gulf of Mexico (29 percent), Alaska (25 percent), and the West Coast (13 percent). The remaining five deaths occurred off Hawaii. The type of fishing operations with the highest number of fall overboard deaths were Gulf of Mexico shrimp (34), East Coast lobster (18), Alaska salmon drift gillnet (16), and East Coast scallop (10).

"Many falls occurred while crewmembers were working on deck with fishing gear, including 35 falls while setting gear and 20 falls while hauling gear onboard. Thirty-four falls also occurred while crewmembers were on deck while off duty," she explained. "The leading causes of falls were losing balance (32%), tripping or slipping (32%), and becoming entangled in gear (21%). The most commonly identified contributing factors included working alone (49%), alcohol and/or drug involvement (18%), and inclement weather (12%)."

Significantly, none of the victims wore a personal flotation device (PFD) when they died. A life ring was used in 19 events, she writes, but most often these did not result in a successful recovery of the person in the water; a man-overboard alarm reportedly was used in only one event, the majority of falls were not witnessed, and most of these fishermen were not found in the ensuing search. Of 30 crewmembers who were recovered from the water within an hour, CPR was attempted on 21, to no avail.

Her post recommends creating enclosed workspaces; raising the gunnels on the vessel; and using lifelines and tethers where possible. She concludes by asking for input from members of the industry on how they have encouraged the use of PFDs on commercial fishing vessels.

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