Commercial Fishing Accident Lawyers
Representing Fishermen & Their Families. $15+ Billion Won.
Commercial fishing stands as one of the most perilous professions in the U.S., with its workers confronting numerous challenges such as severe weather, demanding labor, extended working hours, and hazardous conditions. In 2019, the fatality rate among commercial fishermen was a staggering 40 times that of the average American worker.
At Arnold & Itkin, we recognize the risks associated with commercial fishing and are committed to advocating for the rights and safety of these hardworking individuals. If you have been seriously injured or lost a loved one in a commercial fishing accident, it's important to talk to an experienced maritime law attorney regarding your legal rights.
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Commercial Fishing Accident Statistics
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) oversees the Commercial Fishing Incident Database (CFID), which records work-related fatalities in the U.S. commercial fishing sector. An examination of two decades of data, spanning from 2000 to 2019, reveals some alarming trends. Over this period, a total of 878 commercial fishermen tragically lost their lives due to work-related injuries, translating to an average of over 43 deaths annually.
Vessel disasters accounted for nearly half of these fatalities, while falls overboard and onboard injuries represented 30% and 14% respectively. Furthermore, geographic analysis indicates the East Coast as the region with the highest fatality count, closely followed by areas like Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.
According to NIOSH, from 2000 to 2019:
- There were 254 vessel disasters, which led to 414 commercial fishing fatalities.
- 54% of vessel disasters involved severe weather.
- 266 commercial fishermen died in falls overboard.
- None of the fishermen who fell overboard were wearing personal flotation devices.
- More than half (57%) of falls overboard were not witnessed.
- 122 fishermen died from onboard hazards.
- 40% of onboard hazard fatalities involved contact with equipment, machinery, or gear.
There were 288 commercial fishing fatalities on the East Coast. Of these:
- 50% were caused by vessel disasters.
- 27% involved falls overboard.
- Drowning was the leading cause of death, accounting for 81% of fatalities.
There were 236 commercial fishing fatalities in Alaska. Of these:
- 44% were caused by vessel disasters.
- 29% involved falls overboard.
- Drowning was the leading cause of death, accounting for 76% of fatalities.
There were 201 commercial fishing fatalities in the Gulf of Mexico. Of these:
- 41% involved falls overboard.
- 38% were caused by vessel disasters.
- Drowning was the leading cause of death, accounting for 82% of fatalities.
There were 141 commercial fishing fatalities on the West Coast. Of these:
- 64% were caused by vessel disasters.
- 22% involved falls overboard.
- Drowning was the leading cause of death, accounting for 89% of fatalities.
There were 12 commercial fishing fatalities in Hawaiian waters. Of these:
- 58% involved falls overboard.
- 17% were caused by vessel disasters.
- Drowning was the leading cause of death, accounting for 75% of fatalities.
Top 3 Dangers to Commercial Fishermen
Although some hazards may vary depending on the type of vessel and the region in which it operates, NIOSH has identified three primary dangers to commercial fishermen:
Vessel disasters are the leading cause of death for commercial fishermen in the United States. They accounted for nearly half of all commercial fishing fatalities from 2000 to 2019. When a fishing vessel capsizes or sinks, every person on board will be in imminent danger. The only chances of survival are boarding a lifeboat or surviving in the water until rescued.
617 crew members were involved in fishing vessel disasters in Alaska from 2000 to 2014:
- For those who entered the water, their chances of survival were 17 times higher if they boarded a life raft.
- For those who were in the water for more than 30 minutes, their chances of survival were 12 times higher if they boarded a life raft and 6 times higher if they were wearing immersion suits. In good weather conditions, their chances of survival were 26 times higher.
Of the 212 fatal commercial fishing vessel disasters that occurred in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015:
- 55% were attributed to severe weather.
- 25% were initially caused by flooding.
- 19% were initially caused by a large wave.
- 19% were initially caused by an unstable vessel.
Commercial fishing vessels may capsize or sink as a result of severe weather, rough seas, or unseaworthiness. An overloaded fishing boat can also capsize and sink. What can vessel owners and operators do to prevent these disasters? They can avoid severe weather in the first place, implement routine training and drilling on marine safety, maintain seaworthy and watertight vessels, and provide the proper lifesaving equipment for all crew members.
Falls overboard are the second leading cause of death for commercial fishermen nationwide. More than half of these are unwitnessed, meaning the fisherman was working alone or fell overboard without another crew member noticing. The best ways to prevent man overboard deaths are by wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs) at all times, by never working alone, and by implementing man overboard alarms. Vessel kill switches, boarding ladders, and trail lines can also help prevent man overboard fatalities among commercial fishermen.
From 2000 to 2019, 266 fishermen died from falling overboard. None were wearing personal flotation devices when they drowned. Many of these deaths could have been prevented if the fishermen had been wearing PFDs when they went into the water.
A common misconception about man overboard deaths is that they are caused by hypothermia. The reality is that cold incapacitation sets in before hypothermia. Cold incapacitation occurs when a person cannot properly coordinate the movement required to swim due to immersion in cold water. It can happen in waters that are 59 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, and it may set in within 3 to 30 minutes of immersion. A person may lose 60-80% of their strength and dexterity in that time, which makes it nearly impossible to keep their head above water or to pull themselves out of the water.
A PFD gives a commercial fisherman who has fallen overboard the opportunity to stay afloat while awaiting rescue. It keeps the fisherman’s head above water so they can call for help. In the mere minutes it takes for cold incapacitation to set in, a PFD may save a fisherman’s life.
In addition to providing PFDs for all crew members on a commercial fishing boat, vessel owners and operators must ensure the necessary measures are taken to prevent man overboard incidents and recover any crew member who has fallen into the water. These policies must be enforced without question, along with routine training.
Hazards on Deck
The deck of a commercial fishing vessel can be a hazardous place. Not only do wet decks present slip and fall hazards, but the machinery on deck can cause debilitating injuries if improperly maintained or operated. On-deck injuries accounted for 14% of commercial fishing fatalities in U.S. waters from 2000 to 2019. They are the leading cause of injuries requiring hospitalization for commercial fishermen nationwide.
Deck winches, high-tension lines and cables, nets, and other equipment or machinery can cause catastrophic trauma like amputation and crush injuries. They can also cause falls overboard.
To learn more, check out the following blogs:
- Deck Winch Accidents & How to Prevent Them
- Offshore Injuries Caused by Derricks, Cranes & Other Deck Lifting Equipment
Training, proper equipment maintenance, and safety policies like assigning more than one crew member to tasks that could cause harm or a fall overboard are all ways that maritime employers can reduce on-deck injuries and fatalities.
Commercial Fishing Risks
According to the Center for Public Integrity, the commercial fishing industry causes more fatalities than any other workplace in the country. Despite precautions and legislation, storms at sea, intense weather, and unpredictable complications create dangerous situations while fishermen are far away from help. Combined with strenuous physical labor, long hours, and weeks at sea, exhaustion can and often does contribute to the rate and severity of such accidents.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which holds jurisdiction over U.S. fishing vessels is responsible for enforcing the safety of vessels and is often involved in rescuing fishermen who find themselves in danger. The Coast Guard recommends extra precautions to avoid incidents, such as CPR training for crew members, providing suits for surviving in icy waters, and adequate lifeboats. Overloading a vessel, failing to maintain it, neglecting the crew's need for rest and sustenance, and other factors can easily contribute to dangerous conditions.
Falls in Commercial Fishing
Falls are a significant risk on commercial fishing vessels. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard do all that they can to reduce the number of falls in commercial fishing accidents, but they aren't always successful at protecting workers from harm. Employers and supervisors on commercial fishing vessels have the responsibility to prevent falls using whatever means necessary.
Workers are most likely to suffer a fall on a commercial fishing vessel when they are:
- Painting the outside vessel rails
- Working on fishing gear
- Welding the outside of a vessel's hull
- Working on masts or gantries
In addition to these dangerous jobs, workers are at risk of falling when they are near open hatches. Most fishing vessels have these hatches, which can have deep drops into the belly of a ship. All hatches should be protected by coamings or guarded by rails. OSHA recommends that all coamings must be a minimum of 24 inches tall.
Another fall danger is when fishermen board or exit a vessel from the dock. All gangways should be very solid and have guardrails to prevent the possibility of a fall. Individuals who tumble off the gangway could end up trapped between the dock and the ship or may collide with one of these hazards in their descent. Gangways should have at least 20 inches of walking surface and be built to carry the anticipated load. When a gangway is not available, fishermen can board ships using a straight ladder that extends 36 inches above the upper landing and is secured.
The edges of the decks, platforms, scaffolding, runways, staging, or other flat surfaces are other dangers on fishing boats. Because of the rocking motion of the boat and the unpredictability of the oceans, workers may be tossed back and forth on upper platforms and there is a risk that they could come crashing down. This is why all platforms five feet above the lower deck must be protected with guardrails unless something prevents it.
Fall Prevention Methods
Because of a boat's instability, falls are often a threat. The rocking waves can send a boat back and forth, pitching workers on higher levels down to the decks below. Also, poor lighting and slick, wet surfaces promote the possibility of a fall.
This is why OSHA suggests that all supervisors on these vessels provide fall protection when a worker is more than five feet above a solid surface. Supervisors are also required to use fall prevention tactics whenever a worker is suspended over the water. When a worker is on the ship on a surface that is five feet from the deck or level below, then the ship should have a guardrail, chain, or rope to serve as a handrail. When there is a hole or another dangerous trip hazard supervisors should cover the area with a toe board.
When a person is suspended over the water or if a handrail is not available, then workers are supposed to make use of a fall restraint system. This is a system that involves a harness and a lifeline and will keep a person from falling off the edge of a surface. When fall restraint systems are not available, fall arrest systems can be used. These are also harness systems that won't prevent a fall but will allow a worker to be caught with minimal injury.
The risk of falls on commercial fishing vessels can be further mitigated by:
- Using proper equipment
- Establishing a proper gangway to board exit vessels
- Practicing ladder safety
- Only using cranes to lift personnel when they are approved for this use
- Keeping equipment out of pathways to reduce trip hazards
- Using handrails to maintain balance when necessary
Commercial Fishing & Confined Spaces
Confined spaces are another significant threat on commercial fishing vessels. When these locations are not identified, tested, and ventilated, workers can be injured or even killed. OSHA and the U.S. Coast Guard both have regulations in place that apply to different activities in the fishing industry to keep employees safe. Among the many regulations issued by these two organizations are rules regarding cleaning, repairs, overhaul, and alteration of vessels at sea, and repairs made dockside or in a shipyard. All of these jobs may involve sending workers into confined spaces.
To keep commercial fishing workers safe, OSHA has identified three main atmospheric hazards:
- Oxygen Levels: In enclosed spaces, oxygen levels can drop quickly. Any oxygen levels that are too low can result in serious dangers. Per OSHA, low oxygen is normally measured as 19.5% or less. This can lead to a loss of awareness, unconsciousness, and eventual death. Oxygen greater than 22% is considered too high and comes with an added risk of a fire. High oxygen can cause fire to burn at a faster than normal rate and may even create an explosion.
- Toxic Chemicals: Another danger in enclosed spaces is the presence of toxic chemicals. On fishing vessels, it isn't rare for dangerously high levels of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia to accumulate in poorly ventilated areas. This can affect workers’ skin, eyes, and respiratory systems. It may result in almost immediate death.
- Flammable Atmospheres: Small, poorly ventilated spaces can often facilitate the danger of a fire or an explosion. As mentioned before, a dangerously high oxygen level poses a fire risk. Flammable or combustible gases or liquids can result in an explosion, especially when an ignition source is introduced.
The following enclosed spaces deserve extra attention on a fishing vessel:
- Refrigeration Spaces: Commercial fishing vessels often have large refrigeration rooms and spaces where the fish are stored. Freon can displace oxygen in these refrigerators, causing the oxygen level to drop dangerously low. Also, ammonia can become flammable in these spaces. Foam insulation in the fridge may catch fire in the case of a combustible reaction, causing severe injury or death.
- Sewage Tanks: In sewage tanks, there are toxic hydrogen sulfide levels and flammable gases. There are also low oxygen levels in these tanks. Workers should avoid entering them when possible.
- Ballast Tanks, Lazarettes, and Chain Lockers: Small, confined spaces on fishing vessels can all present the hazard of low oxygen levels. Saltwater can cause metals to rust. Because these containers are normally made of metal, rust may be present in these locations, and the rust will naturally diffuse oxygen. Eventually, this will result in a low oxygen level displaced by gases and pain vapors. This can be toxic for workers.
- Slop Tanks, Holds, or Voids: Most commercial fishing vessels have some sort of container where organic matter can collect and decompose. These tanks have low oxygen levels and there is normally a significant level of hydrogen sulfide in these locations because of the decomposition of the organic matter.
- Fuel, Lube, or Hydraulic Oil Tanks: These locations can create low oxygen levels and oftentimes the atmospheres are flammable or toxic. Without the proper training or precautions, workers on commercial vessels could be injured or may suffocate from the lack of oxygen inside.
Other Risks on Commercial Fishing Vessels
Vessel disasters, falls overboard, and on-deck injuries account for the vast majority of commercial fishing accidents, but there are two other hazards crews may face:
Diving injuries, which account for about 5% of commercial fishing fatalities. Running out of air, entanglement, and equipment malfunction are the common causes of fatalities in dive fisheries.
On-shore injuries, which can happen when commercial fishermen fall from a dock into the water, when crew members are killed while working at on-shore fisheries, or when workers are exposed to chemical hazards. These account for about 4% of commercial fishing fatalities.
Rights of Commercial Fishermen
The risks commercial fishermen face every day are very real, but they can also be minimized. Some are entirely preventable. Vessel owners and maritime employers are obligated to protect crew members from unnecessary hazards—and they can be held accountable when they fail to do so.
NIOSH recommends that vessel owners and operators:
- Create and enforce personal flotation device (PFD) policies for all on-deck work
- Conduct monthly safety drills (fires, flooding, man overboard, abandoning ship, etc.)
- Install working man overboard alarms and retrieval systems
- Install emergency stop devices on deck machinery like winches
- Require all crew members to be up to date on marine safety training
What’s more, under general maritime law vessel owners and employers have an obligation to maintain seaworthy vessels. They can be held liable when unseaworthiness or negligence causes a commercial fisherman to be injured or lose their life, in addition to standard maintenance and cure that is owed to any injured seaman, regardless of fault.
Contact Our Commercial Fishing Accident Firm
At Arnold & Itkin, we are committed to helping people who have been injured or have lost loved ones in commercial fishing accidents. As leading offshore injury lawyers, we’re known for standing up for injured seamen and their families. We’ve fought the biggest maritime employers and won record settlements and awards for our clients, ensuring they have what they need to rebuild their lives. We represented three widows of the crew that was lost when El Faro steamed straight into Hurricane Joaquin, getting answers on their behalf and holding at-fault parties accountable. We successfully represented one-third of the Deepwater Horizon crew, helping them secure life-changing recoveries.