Commercial Fishing Fatalities

April 28th is Workers’ Memorial Day where we remember those who have lost their lives while trying to make a living.

The current issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) includes workplace fatality, injury and illness data; a QuickStats which demonstrates differences among employment categories in influenza vaccination; and the article summarized in this blog, “Fatal Falls Overboard in Commercial Fishing — United States, 2000–2016.”

Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, with a work-related fatality rate 23 times higher than for all workers in 2016. Falling from a fishing vessel is a serious hazard responsible for the second highest number of fatalities in the industry after vessel sinking events.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) analyzed data on unintentional fatal falls overboard in the US commercial fishing industry to identify gaps in the use of prevention strategies. NIOSH researchers examined each fall overboard to determine the circumstances of the fall, including worker activity, primary cause, and contributing factors. Recovery attempts were also considered, noting any use of survival or rescue equipment and administration of medical treatment.

During 2000-2016, 204 commercial fishermen died from unintentionally falling overboard. The study found that fatalities occurred most frequently on the East Coast (30%), followed by the Gulf of Mexico (29%), Alaska (25%), and the West Coast (13%). 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. 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%).

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

Timely treatment of a fall overboard victim, including performing CPR, preventing further heat loss, and rewarming the victim, is a priority. None of the 30 crewmembers who were recovered back onboard within one hour were revived.

Successful treatment might be more likely if professional medical assistance is obtained as soon as possible. However, this is a challenge for much of the fishing industry when operating in remote locations.