Offshore InjuryBlog

Commercial Fishing: One of America's Most Dangerous Jobs

Did you know that commercial fishing has a fatality rate that’s 29 times higher than the national average? This makes it one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States.

According to the Alaska Western States Division office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the top three dangers to commercial fishermen are:

Vessel Disasters

Vessel disasters are the leading cause of death for commercial fishermen in the United States. They accounted for half of all commercial fishing fatalities from 2000 to 2014, according to NIOSH. When a fishing vessel capsizes or sinks, every single 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 sinkings 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.

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.

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

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

Falls overboard are the second leading cause of death for commercial fishermen nationwide. Just over 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 2014, 210 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 to make sure everyone knows what to do.

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 account for about 12% of commercial fishing fatalities each year. 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 in some cases.

To learn more, check out the following blogs:

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 involving commercial fishermen.

Other Risks Faced by Commercial Fishermen

The three hazards listed above (vessel disasters, falls overboard, and on-deck injuries) cause about 92% of all commercial fishing fatalities nationwide. Although less common, there are two other hazards that affect crews of commercial fishing vessels.

These are:

  • 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 3% of commercial fishing fatalities.

Vessel Owners & Maritime Employers Must Protect 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, abandon 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.

Commercial Fishing Accident? Call Our Leading Offshore Injury Lawyers!

Working as a commercial fisherman is exciting and rewarding, but it can also be dangerous. If you or someone you love suffered harm at sea, our team at Arnold & Itkin is here to help. 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.

Call (888) 346-5024 or contact us online to learn how our commercial fishing injury attorneys can help you. Your consultation is free and private.

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