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The Fatal Three: Dangers to Avoid and Stay Safe at Sea

Knowing The Risks

Americans love their seafood, but most diners have no idea of the danger involved in obtaining the Catch of the Day. While everyone in the industry is well aware of the risks involved, many vessel owners and fishermen themselves don’t take the safety measures necessary to ensure a safe voyage. A study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of commercial fishing fatalities in the last decade identified the dangers that pose the biggest threat to fishermen. Being aware of these hazards can lead to safer vessels and fresh seafood that doesn’t come at a greater cost than market price.


The Fatal 3

1. Vessel Disasters

The leading cause of death among fishermen between 2000 and 2009 was drowning following a vessel disaster. Seventy percent of all fatalities fell into this category. Vessel disasters include capsizing, fires, and sinking following severe weather, collisions, or malfunctioning equipment on board. To reduce these fatalities, the NIOSH study recommends targeting the following two areas:

Disaster survival.

Many efforts in fisherman safety focus on the survival of the crew following a disaster. Requirements implemented in 1988 for all fishing vessels to carry lifeboats and immersion suits have greatly improved crew survival. NIOSH found that victims who died following a vessel disaster were seven times less likely than survivors to have used a life raft and 15 times less likely to have worn an immersion suit.

Disaster prevention.

NIOSH recommends both policy changes, in the form of stricter safety legislation, and efforts towards developing vessel stability controls, hatch monitoring systems, and multi-level flood sensors in order to prevent vessel disasters in the first place.


2. Falls Overboard

Fishermen falling overboard is the second leading cause of fatalities, accounting for 24 percent of the deaths on the West Coast. In the last 15 years, there were 210 fatal falls overboard from commercial fishing vessels nationwide. None of the victims was wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). Ensuring survival when a crew member falls overboard relies on the following:

Wearing a personal flotation device.

A fisherman thrown into cold, choppy water has a much greater chance of survival when wearing a PFD. The device buys the victim time for the crew to conduct a rescue.

Never working alone on deck.

More than half of man overboard deaths are unwitnessed, meaning no one saw the crewman fall overboard. Following a policy of never working alone on deck as well as the use of man overboard alarm systems can greatly improve survival rates.

Crew member training in man overboard recovery.

The crew of any fishing vessel must be trained in man overboard recovery procedures. There is no substitute for training and regular practice.


3. Deck Injuries

Accounting for 12 percent of fatal injuries and the largest number of non-fatal injuries among fishermen, accidents on the deck are a major risk. Slippery surfaces, high tension cables, and hydraulic machinery can all lead to serious injury or death. Some preventative measures that can be taken include:

Emergency stop devices.

The ability to cut power to a piece of equipment is essential if a crew member becomes caught in the machinery.

Deck maintenance.

Keeping decks as dry as possible and storing lines and cables out of the way can prevent disaster on deck.

Effective lighting.

When fishing at night, it is important to be able to see obstacles on deck clearly. A well-lit deck is a safer deck.


Commercial fishing vessel owners should do everything they can to ensure the safety of their crew. Yes, fishing is a dangerous industry, but it does not have to be deadly. Protect yourself and protect your right to compensation if you are injured.

William Turley
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