With a job fatality rate 28 times higher than the average worker's, how can fishers protect themselves from the hungry ocean?
By Kristin Kloberdanz, M.A.
"The Perfect Storm," which portrays the deadly voyage of a small swordfish boat in Massachusetts, gave many moviegoers their first glimpse into the risks of commercial fishers.
For Marcus Ballweber, who has spent the past 13 years working in the Alaskan fishing industry, many of the hazards depicted on the big screen are all too familiar. Ballweber once saw a massive wave knock a man from his bunk into the frigid water in his room, where he was promptly electrocuted by an electric current from the wiring. He knows all about the numbing effects of hypothermia, having helped haul men on board ship after they've floundered and nearly perished in ice-cold water. He has watched helplessly as coworkers' feet and limbs have been crushed under 700-pound steel crab pots. He has seen still others thrown clear off the deck after their legs became tangled up in ropes attached to the rapidly sinking crab pots.
It's hardly surprisingly, then, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists commercial fishing as one the nation's deadliest occupations. Between 1992 and 2002, 708 American fishers died while on the job. About 80 percent of these deaths resulted from hypothermia and drowning after a worker falls from the deck or goes down with a capsized or sinking ship.
In 2007, workers in the fishing industry recorded the highest fatality rate of all: roughly 112 deaths per 100,000 workers. This means commercial fishers are nearly 30 times more likely to die on the job than the average American worker according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). "Commercial fishermen need not be trapped in a "Perfect Storm" to be in danger of death or serious injury on the job," says Linda Rosenstock, MD, MPH, former director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and Dean of the UCLA School of Public Health. "Fortunately, we can anticipate dangers and keep these dedicated individuals safe and sound."
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a series of guidelines to fishers and captains to help them guard against some of the more egregious dangers associated with commercial fishing. Here are some of the risks examined by the agency:
- Tumultuous weather. Of all the perilous fishing jobs, OSHA says that foul weather makes crab fishing the deadliest. "Most of the injuries you hear about come out of the crab industry," says Ballweber, who has been a captain on a king crab fishing vessel since 1992. "A lot of that is because we fish crab in the middle of winter and it's really rough conditions. The Bering Sea can go from flat calm to 30 feet [waves] in four or five hours."
- When high waves crash over a ship, the spray can freeze into instant ice. One false step on an icy deck can result in death if a seaman flies overboard. In addition, the boats' 700 to 1,000 pound steel crab-catching pots take on a life of their own in turbulent weather, sliding around on the ice and crushing heads and limbs. While storms and frigid weather are the worst for crabbers, all fishers should take extra precautions when atmospheric conditions are unstable, according to OSHA. Unfortunately, since the legal season for fishing is limited, fishers often have no recourse but to plough on through terrible conditions, beating the ice down with bats and working straight through the night.
- Exhaustion. Besides weather, the biggest problem on fishing boats is fatigue, according to Ballweber. "Our rotation this year was 14 hours on and five off," he says. "But if the weather comes up, you need to work as hard as you can to get all your pots out of the way before the ice comes down. If the crew's working too hard and they get tired, mistakes happen. I've seen guys that are too tired put their foot in the wrong place and get smashed."
- OSHA recommends more crew members on ships or boats and longer sleep rotations. The culture of commercial fishing may need to change, however, before this advice is followed. Ballweber explains that this year he counted on a month's window to catch crab, then learned he had only seven days. Since the crew's entire crab earnings for the year depended on that crucial week, that meant crews worked around the clock.
- Inadequate safety gear. In 1994 NIOSH found that many ships weren't equipped with safety equipment such as life rafts, survival suits (full-body suits that protect against hypothermia), or radio beacons that signal a ship's position in case of an emergency. Although large ships weighing more than 200 gross tons are required by the Coast Guard to stock these items, in the case of smaller boats it's up to the captain's discretion whether to supply safety gear and supplies. Often sailors bring their own equipment, including coats and life jackets, when they board ship.
- NIOSH recommends that crew members always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) on the vessel deck. Unfortunately, not all fishers follow this advice, saying that life jackets restrict their mobility and cut down on their productivity. Paul Giron, who has worked in the fishing industry off and on for the past eight years, insists he has never worn a life jacket. "You can't work in them," he says. "You're more at risk of getting hurt as a result of your immobility from these life preservers because they cut down on your range of motion."A line of less expensive and lighter life jackets and life preservers is now on the market, says Ballweber. On his ship, life jackets are mandatory. Experience has shown him that they can save lives, he says.
- Lack of training. The fishing industry has long been chastised for inadequate training, particularly in the case of college students on Alaskan vessels. Every summer eager but untrained students travel to Alaska to board giant processing boats, lured by college newspaper ads that offer adventure and high wages at sea. In 1985 the body of college student Peter Barry, who had a summer job aboard a 70-year-old Alaska salmon fishing boat, was found floating at sea; the other five crew members aboard were never found. According to investigators, the ship had almost no safety equipment, life rafts, survival suits, or emergency radio beacon. Although the deaths resulted in stricter safety regulations, a number of fishers who were not wearing life jackets have since drowned after they were swept overboard or capsized.
- Since the problem came to light in the early 1990s, OSHA has released a series of strongly worded warnings to students in an attempt to educate them about the high rates of death and injuries in the industry.
- Disabling injuries. The most common problems on ships are slips, falls, and repetitive strain disorders. About 25 percent of all non-fatal injuries in the fishing industry come from falls, often caused by icy conditions, according to a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Cuts account for another 9 percent. "You're dealing with a very unfriendly living environment," Giron says. "That's the way most boats are -- they're basically full of exposed steel pipes and sharp edges. You should see my shins. I've got no skin left on them."
- Carpal tunnel syndrome and musculoskeletal disorders are another liability: Repetitive motions are unavoidable when a fisher is constantly throwing lines out to sea and extracting fish from tangled netting. "Carpal tunnel syndrome is a huge one for salmon fishers or anyone working with a gill net," Giron says. He says that he would work for 18 hours straight detangling 8-pound fish from the netting, which used a lot of finger strength. "Every time I'd go to sleep, I'd wake up, and my hands would be clenched," he says. "We lived on ibuprofen. We'd take it all day long because you just get so sore."
- Stress and burnout. High stress further complicates the picture: Since the fishing season is so short and the monetary stakes so high, the competition among fishing boats can get particularly fierce. The rigid hierarchy on fishing boats can also ride roughshod on egos; newcomers "are basically the whipping boy," Giron says. But the biggest worry is often about money: If the catch is poor, exhausted crewmembers may return to shore without pay.
Despite the many hardships, Giron says that fishing still holds him in its thrall. Above and beyond the punishing physical regimen -- which in itself affords him great satisfaction -- the fisher's close connection to the ocean fills a spiritual need. "There's something transcendent about being on the ocean that you can't describe to people who work on land," Giron says. "It's an inexplicable feeling, working so close to the sea."
To prevent fatalities and injuries on fishing vessels, NIOSH recommends:
- Always wear a personal flotation device while on the deck.
- Use safety lines and guardrails where possible.
- Keep decks clear and use nonskid materials to prevent slipping or tripping.
- Know where safety equipment is located and be sure that it is in proper working order.
Owners and captains:
- Train all crewmembers in the use of safety equipment and survival techniques.
- Conduct man-overboard and other safety related drills.
- Ensure vessel stability and proper maintenance.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Established in 1970 by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, NIOSH is a federal research agency that makes recommendations to help employers prevent job-related injuries and illnesses.
To read NIOSH's "Preventing death and injury in the commercial fishing industry, see mhttp://www.cdc.gov/niosh/updates/perfstrm.html
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Part of the Department of Labor, OSHA develops and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace.
Commercial Fishing Safety. NIOSH: Workplace Safety and Health. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated November 18, 2010.
Selected Occupations with High Fatality Rates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2007
Fatal Falls Overboard on Commercial Fishing Vessels in Alaska.
American Journal of Industrial Medicine: December 2007 / 50:962-968.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Number of fatal work injuries, 1992-2005. http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cfch0004.pdf
Lincoln JM. Preventing Commercial Fishing Deaths in Alaska. Occup. Environ. Med. October, 1999; 56(10), pp. 691-695. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (1992-2002).
Department of Health and Human Services (NIOSH). Commercial Fishing Fatalities in Alaska: Risk Factors and Prevention Strategies. Current 58, Sept. 1997; Pub. No. 97-163. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/97163_58.html
Last Updated: March 11, 2013
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