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How to Survive an Overboard Fall

NIOSH_PFD-300x150Between 2000 and 2014, overboard falls were the second leading cause of death among commercial fishermen in the United States. Of the 210 who died from falling overboard, not one of the victims was wearing a PFD (Personal Flotation Device). What was the leading cause of death among commercial fishermen? Vessel disasters.

According to the CDC, there are no laws that require commercial fishermen wear PFDs. However, USCG regulations [46 CFR 28.110] require that all commercial fishing vessels carry at least one USCG approved PFD or immersion suit of proper size and in good working order for each person on board the vessel. (See our post  Overdue F/V Stormie B Crewmember Rescued  —  September 7, 2021)

Research has shown that the likelihood of surviving an overboard fall is five times greater if a lifejacket or PFD is worn. In a recent survey regarding PFD usage, 16% of respondents said they never wear a PFD while working on deck. Most respondents acknowledged that this safety device is effective at preventing overboard fatalities, yet they were still reluctant about donning this crucial piece of protective gear. Just a few of the reasons offered by crew members:

  • Perceived restriction of movement
  • Feel bulky wearing an extra layer
  • May snag or become entangled with equipment
  • May interfere with work performance

NIOSH Researchers began visiting Alaskan ports in October of 2008 in an effort to reduce overboard fall fatalities. The first part of the research project focused on a questionnaire developed and designed to understand and measure the fishermen’s perceived views regarding risk as it relates to overboard falls. The second part of the study evaluated 400 fishermen who agreed to regularly a PFD (4 different models were randomly assigned) for 30 days while working on deck, then they were asked to evaluate the products.

Wearing a PFD is the best way to make sure a commercial fisherman has as much time as possible to be rescued after a fall. These flotation devices provide a victim with the time it takes for a rescue, even in the coldest conditions.

It is commonly thought that overboard victims die of hypothermia, but the reality is that victims who are not wearing a PFD die from “cold incapacitation”, or the inability to coordinate the body movements necessary for swimming or keeping afloat.

If fishermen needed yet another reason to wear PFDs, researchers found that in about 53% of overboard fatalities, there were no witnesses (because victims were working alone on deck, or the fall went unnoticed by crewmembers). In addition to always wearing a PFD, fishermen should avoid working alone on deck, establish a MOB alarm system, and deploy a boarding ladder or trailing line to help seamen get back onboard.

The following 9 steps were prepared by NIOSH as well as this video titled Man Overboard: Prevention and Recovery.

  1. Float – always wear a PFD on deck! Most of the new PFDs are comfortable and lightweight.
  2. Signal/Notification – alert the skipper, crew, and all nearby vessels about any MOB incident.
  3. Communication – maintain visual contact with the MOB.
  4. Mark the MOB location – throw life rings, buoys, totes, or marker lights to mark the spot, and input the spot into your GPS.
  5. Turn the vessel – return to the location where the crewmember went into the water.
  6. Prepare a rescue swimmer – they can assist the victim in getting back onboard. Use an immersion suit and detachable tether.
  7. Approach the MOB victim carefully – maintain visual contact and a safe distance depending on conditions.
  8. Deploy a rescue device – throw a life ring, lower a sling, ladder, or other boarding device to help them get back over the rail.
  9. Mechanical advantage – use a hydraulic hauler or simple block and tackle to help lift the MOB out of the water more easily.

By following these recommendations and the 9 steps above, fishermen and crewmembers can mitigate risk of death in the event of an overboard fall. Vessel owners, captains, and skippers should all lead by example by wearing a PFD, and all crewmembers must be properly trained in the event of an overboard fall. Your life and the life of your crew could depend on it.

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