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Focus on Fishing Industry Safety

A preliminary report for 2010, made this past August by the U.S. Bureau of Labor, shows that fishers and those in related fishing industry work continue to have the highest fatal injury rate of all employment categories in the U.S. This chart sums up the higher than average occupation-related death rate in the fishing industry:

Year – Fatalities per 100,000

2010 – 116

2009 – 200

2008 – 129

2007 – 112

2006 – 141

2005 – 118.

According to NTSB data, the death rate averaged 158 per 100,000 between 1992 to 2008 for the fishing industry, whereas the national work fatality average for that time period was four deaths in 100,000. Recognition of this unconscionable death rate, as well as the high rate of non-fatal injuries, and the financial and emotional costs involved in work-related death or injury has driven a focus on better fishing-related safety.

The sea is unpredictable and a crisis can arise within seconds. According to the Coast Guard and industry experts, preparation is key and includes having life jackets, survival suits, life rafts, reliable communication equipment, EPIRB, flares, and the emergency training to know what to do and when to do it. Crews at lower risk for loss of life and injury are those trained in the proper use of fishing and vessel equipment, including safety stops on equipment, working with a partner, and in keeping equipment inspected and maintained. In the event of a boat capsizing or sinking, crews with the best survival rate are those with emergency training and quick access to safety gear.

Mandatory vessel inspections are the rule for a few fishing vessels over a certain size, and there are regulations concerning what types of safety gear are required and in what quantity each type of vessel should carry. The Coast Guard encourages those on smaller fishing vessels to request a Voluntary Safety Check, in which the Coast Guard conducts an inspection and provides an evaluation with suggested safety improvements, without citations or fines.

Certain vessel operating licenses require a pre-employment medical check-up. To save paperwork and time, it’s been recommended that these check-ups be done by specific doctors who are designated by their familiarity with the standards and requirements specific to the industry. The goal is not to keep people from working, but to ensure that they receive proper health care and health management so that they will be able to continue to work safely, including older fishers, whose experience and expertise is invaluable.

The U.S. Coast Guard has set a minimum 50% random drug testing rate for covered crewmembers of both inspected and uninspected vessels for 2012. In 2010, the positive drug test rate was below 1%, and if the 2011 rate remains under 1%, the new random drug testing rate for these crewmembers will be set at 25%.

Another measure for certain vessels and certain fisheries, which has been in place since 2008, is the Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system, which replaced the former “derby” system in order to address fishery sustainability issues as well as to increase safety among fishers. With IFQ, fishers bring in a steady supply of fish all year until their individual or community quota has been met. Fishers are able to buy, sell, lend, and trade their catch shares with one another. Now, fishers and fisheries can better plan their catches according to market demands and are able to take the time to work more safely. With IFQ, there is no longer a competitive “race” to catch the most fish in one short season, a system in which so many fishers felt forced to take high risks such as going out in too-hazardous conditions, bypassing safety precautions in favor of speed, and overloading boats. In the long run, increased safety translates into increased efficiency.

An area which should be regulated, in our view, is the terribly long hours that the ship owner requires the crew to work. Currently, with respect to virtually all fishing vessels, there are no wage and hour laws establishing safe working conditions. Crews on the fishing vessels, even those with quotas, are required to work 16 hours a day, sometimes longer, seven days a week, for months at a time. As we have reported in prior posts, such primitive work conditions create a dangerous work environment. People working tired are people at risk, especially around dangerous equipment and in a dangerous environment. Labor laws governing work hours have been in place in the U.S. for a hundred years in factories and other work places. It’s time to regulate working conditions on fishing vessels. Until this is done, all the inspections and safety equipment required by the Coast Guard will not prevent the terrible losses this industry suffers at sea.

Fishing industry fatality has been of concern for years and the death rate is still too high, even given the inherent dangers at sea. Perhaps what underlies any future success at preserving life and limb is the recognition and ongoing awareness of the issues, not accepting these fatalities as simply a normal part of fishing, and continuing to focus on improving work conditions and reducing risks for fisheries and individuals.