Despite technological advances, fatalities in commercial fishing have not changed significantly in the last few years.
From 2000 to 2009, 131 commercial fishermen died on the job. Half died due to drowning after vessel disasters, and another 31 percent resulted from falls overboard, according to a report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s Alaska Pacific Office.
Alaska Pacific Office Director Jennifer Lincoln said the magnitude of fatalities hasn’t changed in the last few years, and the statistics are similar to the trends from 2000 to 2009.
In addition to collecting the statistics, the office works to mitigate the underlying issues.
But recently, NIOSH itself has needed saving.
NIOSH’s commercial fishing safety arm was slated for the chopping block in a proposed fiscal year 2013 budget, but survived when Congress used a continuing resolution for government spending instead of adopting the president’s proposal.
Then, the president had proposed cutting $22 million for the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program, of which about $1.5 million was designated for the commercial fishing safety program. NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC.
However, under the continuing resolution, the program was funded at the same level as the year prior, although it was subject to sequestration.
Sequestration cuts came out of the department’s non-essential air travel, and did not affect research operations, Lincoln said.
The year before that, fiscal year 2012, NIOSH was also scheduled for cuts. Industry support convinced legislators to reinstate the money.
Funding has yet to be decided for the 2014 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The president’s proposed budget once again calls for cuts, but a version from Congress would not eliminate the money.
Ultimately, NIOSH must wait for a budget to pass to know what the funding level will be, said Public Affairs Officer Christy Spring.
The Alaska Pacific Office is responsible for fishing vessel safety nationwide, despite its Alaska location.
As long as the program lives, it is continuing its work to try to save fishermen’s lives — and right now, lifejackets are a major focus of that effort.
Falls overboard are the second largest cause of death in fishermen, Lincoln said. Only one of the 191 fishermen who died between 2000 and 2012 was wearing a lifejacket, Lincoln said.
“A PFD doesn’t guarantee survival, but it certainly increases the chances of surviving a fall overboard,” Lincoln said.
A recent NIOSH study looked into the preferred lifejackets for various commercial gear types by surveying fishermen and asking 200 to evaluate lifejackets for 30 days on deck.
Crabbers came out in support of Mustang and Stearns Inflatable Suspenders, while longliners liked only the Mustang suspenders. Gillnetters liked the Mustang suspenders, and Regatta Fishermen’s Oilskins with floatation built in.
Trawlers said they liked the inflatable suspenders, oilskins and a Stearns’ foam vest.
Now, the office is trying to spread the word about what works, based on that study.
Lincoln said they’ve talked about lifejackets on twitter and the NIOSH website, through face-to-face meetings at ComFish in Kodiak and the Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle, and by engaging partners organizations, including the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association and the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association.
The office is working on a campaign called ‘Live to be Salty’ to further encourage lifejacket use.
Lincoln said they want vessels to have a plan for when fishermen onboard should be wearing a lifejacket. Standards might vary from vessel to vessel, and could be based on weather, duties, location on ship, or other factors, but it’s important that every boat plot a course of action.
“We want operators to have some sort of a plan,” Lincoln said.
The organization isn’t focused only on lifejackets. Lincoln said they also encourage the use of personal locator beacons, and safety preparations.
If a vessel has a man overboard alarm, there’s a better chance the crew will be able to respond, she said.
Basically, if the organization had a bumper sticker for vessel safety, it would say: “Put one on, take a class, shut the door,” Lincoln said.
In other words, wear a lifejacket, learn about emergency situations, and keep vessels watertight, including the hatch.
The office also worked on developing a hatch and door system with a series of lights that alert operators to the status of an opening — whether it is open, shut or locked.
That’s important because it can affect whether or not water is staying out of the vessel, Lincoln said.
The office is working on sea testing for a tank monitoring system, and reviewing injuries/fatalities onboard freezer trawlers and freezer longliners in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard.
The review should be done by the end of the year, Lincoln said.
According to the office’s report on occupational injuries in the commercial fishing industry, the Bering Sea and Aleutian Island freezer trawl fleet had 22 fatalities from 2000 to 2009, the most per full time equivalent employee out of the tracked industries.