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FMA Works to Prevent Injury and Death While Embarking and Disembarking a Vessel

Brian Mason attended the International Fisheries Industry Safety and Health (IFISH) Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, in May. This biannual conference was the fourth of its kind and brought together numerous professionals with an interest in fishing vessel safety. Key themes of the conference were the relationship between fisheries management and safety and sea safety collaborations between developed and developing nations. At the conference, Brian presented a paper on preventing injury and death while embarking and disembarking commercial fishing vessels. NMFS, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) were all represented from the Alaska Region.

Commercial fishing in Alaska is among the most dangerous occupations in the United States. According to NIOSH, the annual fatality rate of commercial fisherman in 2007 was 28 times greater than the rate for all U.S. workers. Many safety improvements have been made in recent years, and the death rate for commercial fishermen in Alaska has declined since the early 1990s.

In the U.S. commercial fishing industry, 13 persons died while embarking or disembarking a fishing vessel in 2000-08. None of these victims were wearing a personal flotation device (PFD), and all died from drowning. (Commercial Fishing Incident Database (Data file queried July 2009). Anchorage, Alaska: NIOSH).

Over the years, numerous FMA staff and North Pacific groundfish observers have been exposed to the dangers of embarking and disembarking a vessel. Recent experiences in 2009 highlight the danger. In June, an observer narrowly avoided a serious injury when she fell into the water while attempting to board her vessel. Fortunately, she was recovered from the water with only minor injuries due to the quick actions of dock personnel. In April an observer avoided falling into the water only due to the presence of a safety net tied between the dock and the vessel.

safe procedure for embarking a vessel
From left to right:  1) Observer Charles Buckley ponders how to safely embark his vessel.  2) A crewmember assists observer Charles Buckley by standing on the line to bring the vessel closer to the dock.  3) Observer Charles Buckley makes the crossing to his vessel safely as a crewmember stands by.  Photos by observer Caroline Robinson.

It is worth noting that a simple precautionary measure, a net, may have prevented a more serious injury or death. Both incidents highlight the need for preventive measures along with a PFD to improve the chances of survival should one fall into the water.

To better understand the scope of the dangers of embarking and disembarking a vessel, the FMA Division conducted a survey in 2008 which confirmed our anecdotal observations that procedures and equipment for embarkation and disembarkation were lacking and that the lack of procedure and equipment was more pronounced on smaller vessels.

As a result of the survey, we implemented several efforts to improve the safety of observers and staff boarding vessels. First, staff now are required to wear a PFD when visiting a vessel. We also require all observers to take and wear PFDs during their deployments. Field staff have also worked with plant personnel to increase safety by installing nets when boats are tied up. More work can be done in this area, but each step is an improvement.

Preventing injury and death while embarking and disembarking is the responsibility of everyone involved: industry, observers, and NMFS. The FMA Division is working to improve safety by collecting and sharing information and providing key pieces of safety equipment to minimize the risk of injury or death in the event of an accident.

By Allison Barns and Brian Mason


Download the complete research report:  PDF; 1.55 MB.  (To view and print this document, you must install Adobe Acrobat Reader freeware. Adobe also offers free tools for the visually disabled.)

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