Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, with workers at high risk for many different kinds of injuries and fatalities.
The industry is comprised of diverse vessels and gear used to catch seafood and while there are hazards which are pervasive such as dangerous
weather conditions, specific hazards and the risk of those hazards vary by vessel and gear type.
During 2000-2016, an annual average of 41 deaths occurred in the industry - a fatality rate of 115 deaths per 100,000 workers - compared with an average of 4 deaths per 100,000 workers among all U. S. workers (NIOSH, 2018).
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that from 2000-2016, 755 commercial fishermen died while fishing in the United States (NIOSH, 2018).
Nearly half of these fatalities (364, 48%) occurred after a vessel disaster, 30% (227) when a commercial fisherman fell overboard, and 13% (97) from injuries sustained onboard (NIOSH, 2018).
The remaining 67 (9%) fatalities occurred either while diving or from onshore injuries (NIOSH, 2018).
Injuries sustained onboard include unintentional overdoses that occurred on vessels.
NIOSH has looked at some of these types of events more carefully to identify risk factors.
For instance, from 2000-2016, none of the victims in fatal falls overboard were wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) when they drowned.
In addition, 59% of the falls were unwitnessed, and alcohol and drugs contributed to over 18% of all fatalities (Case et al, 2018).
Fatigue or falling asleep at the helm was a known contributing factor in 42% of all fishing vessel disasters 2010-2015 (fatal and non-fatal) that began with the vessel running aground (79) (NIOSH Unpublished Dataset, 2018).
While on-deck injuries account for just 13% of fatal injuries, they account for the largest number of hospitalized non-fatal injuries among commercial fishermen (NIOSH Unpublished Dataset, 2018).
The leading causes of fatal vessel disasters vary from region to region.
During 2010-2014, the West Coast has the highest percentage of fatalities due to vessel disasters (60%), and many of these incidents are due to crossing dangerous river bars (NIOSH, 2017).
In comparison, vessel disasters accounted for 33% of fatalities in Alaska, with most victims working in small, undecked skiffs (NIOSH, 2017).
Vessels operating in Alaska also have an increased risk of icing, which can lead to vessel instability and subsequent capsizing.
In the Gulf of Mexico, fatal vessel collisions were more prevalent than in other regions (NIOSH, 2017).
Vessel disasters and falls overboard resulted in the same number of fatalities on the East Coast, and three of the most high-risk fisheries in the country are in this region (NIOSH, 2017).
Despite some recent successes in reducing fatal work-related injuries within the commercial fishing industry, the need for safety training and intervention activities remains essential.
Training in emergency drills, survival, damage control, fire prevention and firefighting, stability, seamanship, fatigue awareness and prevention, watchkeeping and weather forecasting is needed to reduce occupational safety risk in the US fishing industry.
Having trained crew and operators that know how to prevent and appropriately respond to at-sea emergencies can mean the difference between life and death, particularly in remote, offshore locations where assistance may be delayed.