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Personal Flotation Devices in the Commercial Fishing Industry

As written previously, commercial fishing remains the most dangerous job in the United States. Alaska has a higher worker fatality rate than the rest of the U.S., partly because about 25% of commercial fishing related deaths in the U.S. occur in that state. According to a 2010 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report on commercial fishing fatalities, falls overboard constituted 31%. Vessel disasters, such as sinking, constituted another 51%. A grim fact stated in the NIOSH report is that, of the 170 fall overboard fatalities between 2000 and 2010, none of the victims were wearing a personal flotation device (PDF).

Some people argue that there’s no reason to wear a PDF in cold seas because a person would die within two or three minutes from hypothermia. However, for the average healthy person in cold water, it takes hypothermia about 30 minutes to set in. In truth, wearing a PDF adds survival time pending rescue because it keeps you afloat even after you are too cold to move (but are still alive and able to recover). Remaining afloat also keeps you more visible to searchers, especially if your PDF has reflective tape and strobe lighting.

In 2008, NIOSH conducted a survey of commercial fishers, which included the fishers wearing and evaluating a variety of PDFs. Too often, there is no time to don a PDF in an emergency, so a PDF should be comfortable enough to wear at all times while on deck. Through working with those in the fishing industry and addressing the dangers specific to various fisheries, the goal of NIOSH is to cut deaths due to vessel sinkings and falls overboard in half by 2018.

In that 2008 NIOSH survey, overall, the most highly rated PDF for comfort was the Hydrostatic Inflation Technology (HIT) suspender type, followed by the foam bibs. Secumatic suspenders and nylon suspender bibs were rated in the middle, while the foam vest and neoprene suspender bibs were rated lowest in on-the-job comfort. (HIT and secumatic types inflate within a few seconds of hitting water; they are designed to not inflate in rain or spray.) The survey revealed that people working in different fisheries using different kinds of fishing gear chose different types of PDFs.

It’s important to note the maintenance requirements and the expiry for each type of PDF on board. For instance, neoprene can degrade through exposure to sunlight or chemicals, as well as during improper storage. Any glues or sealant material used will eventually degrade from extreme temperatures and age. Some PDFs, such as the HIT or secumatic types, will require a new CO2 canister after use. And, each crewmember needs a PDF which fits well.

As per 46 CFR 28.110, all commercial fishing vessels must maintain lifesaving gear for each individual on board. When not being worn, the PDF must also be stored in an area accessible from both the individual’s work station and berth. In 2008, F/V KATMAI sunk with only four of the eleven crewmembers surviving. Much of the safety gear on board KATMAI was old and fell apart, and the crew had not been adequately trained for emergencies. They were not trained even in which immersion suit would fit whom. Subsequently, the 2010 Coast Guard Authorization Act, in 46 CFR 28.270, addresses many of the training and safety gear issues brought to light after the KATMAI tragedy, including safety equipment inspections and training for fall overboard rescues, donning PDFs or immersion suits, and abandoning ship.

In real-life work situations, boat owners and crews must be proactive about safety gear and safety training. Having appropriate safety equipment, including comfortable, well-fitting PDFs for each crewmember – and the crew wearing them on deck – will save lives when the unexpected happens at sea.