The Discovery Channel’s show, Deadliest Catch, depicts the often harrowing job of Alaskan king crab fishing in the Bering Sea. Dungeness crab fishing along the West Coast is no less deadly. The West Coast Dungeness crab fishery represents one of the most dangerous work environments in the US; the fatality rate in this fishery is higher than the Bering Sea crab fishery. From 2003-2009, 14 fishing-related deaths were recorded in Oregon. None of the 14 victims was wearing a Personal Flotation Device (PFD), and most of the fatalities (79%) resulted from capsized vessels while crossing river bars or working near shore. Fishermen are exposed to hazardous working environments where they work on small vessels, often for 16-20 hours a day. Weather and ocean conditions are precarious, and swells across the treacherous river bar—where the river meets the open ocean—can capsize the 30- to- 80-foot boats before the captain and crew have time to pull on a life vest.
To better understand the specific hazards faced by those fishing for Dungeness crab in Oregon, Erika Zoller and Gary Rischitelli from the OR-FACE program at CROET, and Gerry Croteau, Janice Camp, and Marty Cohen from the University of Washington, surveyed Oregon crab fishermen about their safety perceptions and work experience, and field-tested five different PFDs. The project team also included members from NIOSH Alaska Pacific Regional Office, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety & Health Center.
The study team surveyed a total of 83 fishermen, including 24 vessel captains, and 33 fishermen completed the 30-day PFD field-test. Overall, PFD use was found to be infrequent, with the majority of respondents indicating a PFD was never routinely worn. The survey results also show that almost 70 percent of the participants do not regularly practice onboard safety drills, nearly half of crew members have not received safety training, and over half of captains do not have a stability report for their vessel. Respondents’ perspectives regarding key safety issues were also insightful. Weather and tide, and to a lesser degree, economic factors affected vessel captains’ decisions of when they choose to fish. The majority of respondents also indicated favorable opinions about the U.S. Coast Guard Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Exam program. Results from the PFD field-test indicate that an inflatable vest type PFD is the most favorable PFD based on its comfort and ability to work in. However, each PFD assessed was found to have distinct advantages and disadvantages, an indication that personal preference is an important factor in an individual’s selection and subsequent use of a PFD. Based on the results, the study team recommends that a future safety intervention encourages PFD use, expands safety training and onboard safety drills, and improves understanding of vessel stability. Access an online version of the full report for additional study results and recommendations. For more information on commercial fishing safety, visit the NIOSH topic page.
The project was sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety & Health Center (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Award #2 U50 OH07544), whose researchers work to reduce work-related injury, illness, and death in the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing (AgFF) sector.
Submitted by: Erika Zoller and Elizabeth Sharpe from the University of Washington.