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What are the most common causes of death among commercial fishing workers?

According to the Center for Disease Control, commercial fishing is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States. The fatality rate for people working in the commercial fishing industry is 39 times higher than the national average for work-related fatalities.

Over the years, the NIOSH Western States Division office has studied the most common causes of fatalities among fishermen in an effort to reduce accidents that cause injuries and deaths. This office also monitories high-risk fisheries and makes suggestions that may reduce the risk of accidents.

Vessel Disasters

Vessel disasters are the number one cause of deaths among commercial fishermen. Half of all fatalities among fishermen nationwide from 2000 to 2014 were caused by vessel disasters.

While modern commercial ships are built to withstand bad weather, high winds are a common cause of vessel disasters. Winds can push vessels into shallow waters, increasing the chance that they will run aground. But even in calm weather, errors made by captains may cause ships to end up in inappropriately shallow water; in shipping lanes and harbors, a captain’s mistake can even cause two ships to collide. Failure to maintain a ship appropriately may also cause a vessel disaster and can lead to fires or equipment failure.

While the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act has required commercial fishing vessels to carry emergency equipment since 1988, from 2000 to 2014, the victims who died in vessel disasters were 7 times more likely to have not worn an immersion suit and 15 times more likely to not have used a life raft. The NIOSH Western States Division strongly recommends that the captain and crew of a vessel take a safety training class so that they will be prepared to deal with vessel disasters.

Falls Overboard

According to the CDC, 210 American commercial fishermen drowned between 2000 and 2014 as the result of falls overboard, making man overboard fatalities the second leading cause of death among commercial fishermen.

While falls overboard are survivable, the CDC has found that wearing a personal floatation device greatly increases the odds that a fisherman will survive after a fall. None of the fishermen who died from falls overboard between 2000 and 2014 were wearing personal floatation devices. In the cold water of the open ocean, accident victims are especially invulnerable to a condition known as cold incapacitation; even very strong swimmers can lose their ability to stay afloat during cold incapacitation.

The CDC advises commercial fishermen to wear personal floatation devices, use a man overboard alarm, and avoid working alone on deck. More than half of man overboard fatalities are unwitnessed, meaning that the rest of the crew was not on the deck or didn’t notice that the victim had fallen into the water. If crew members must work alone on deck, the CDC recommends deploying a boarding ladder or trailing line, along with a water-activated or proximity engine kill switch, so that the worker who has fallen overboard can get back onto the ship without the ship motoring away.

Machinery and Other Hazards on Deck

The CDC reports that 12% of fatal injuries in commercial fishing are on-deck. On-deck injuries also represent the largest number of non-fatal injuries requiring hospitalization among commercial fishermen.

There are a variety of hazards on the deck of a commercial fishing boat, and poor maintenance or failure to follow safety procedures can quickly turn into disaster. Wet decks can make it difficult to maintain footing, especially when the deck is also pitching. High tension lines and cables can cause dangerous, sometimes fatal, contact injuries. Seamen may also be working with equipment that requires high-voltage currents or hazardous materials like refrigerants. 

Chris Davis
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Chris Davis is the founder of Davis Law Group, P.S. in Seattle, WA.