Alaska fishing deaths drop, but still too high

Posted: Monday, December 17, 2001

ANCHORAGE - A new federal safety report says Alaska's commercial fishing industry has made considerable progress in reducing fatalities in boat sinkings, but adds there are still too many deaths involving deck and dock accidents.

The number of crew members falling overboard also remains high, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, whose report was published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

From 1991 through 1998, 167 people died in the industry and 574 people were hospitalized for injuries. Sixty of the deaths occurred in mishaps not involving a vessel going under. They involved drownings, people being crushed by machinery, diving accidents, falls from docks and asphyxiation from carbon monoxide or Freon coolant.

The nonsinking fatalities represent a rate 10 times greater than the risk of death for all workers in the United States, according to the NIOSH report.

The crab fisheries accounted for nearly half of all fatalities. Salmon fisheries were the next most deadly.

Drowning or hypothermia accounted for 42 of the 60 nonsinking fatalities, according to the report. Many of the deceased were not wearing flotation devices.

The study cites a need for more training or "passive systems" to help fishermen prevent injuries, including better deck layouts, lighting, machinery and fishing gear.

Charlie Medlicott, fishing vessel safety coordinator for the Coast Guard in Anchorage, said the Coast Guard has stepped up efforts in recent years to inspect boats in major fishing ports such as Dutch Harbor to see if they're properly loaded and have working safety equipment such as life rafts and survival suits.

Generally, most vessels are doing a good job of complying with the rules, he said. But competing for fish and crab on pitching, sometimes icy decks in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska is always going to be risky.

"It's such a dynamic work environment," Medlicott told the Anchorage Daily News. "I don't think you're ever going to prevent all this stuff completely. But there are definitely things people can do to reduce accidents. The single most important thing is figuring out ways so that people don't have to go fishing when conditions are really bad."

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