SOS: Fishing safety program to be cut in '13

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard spent July 4 searching for a 63-year-old fisherman who fell overboard in the waters north of Juneau and according to the Associated Press, he was not wearing a personal floatation device.

The search was suspended. The body was not recovered.

State and federal agencies know that commercial fishing is the most dangerous occupation in Alaska, and the United States.

In spite of that, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is about to lose the program that researches safety measures for commercial fishing.

The commercial fishing program, which is a large part of NIOSH’s Alaska Pacific Office, will be eliminated because of cuts in President Barack Obama’s budget.

The president’s 2013 budget cuts $22 million for the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program, and approximately $1.5 million of this is for the commercial fishing safety program.

This program was also scheduled to be cut in Obama’s 2012 budget. However, support from the fishing industry convinced legislators to reinstate the funds.

NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rather than keeping statistics, it works in research and implementation for safety measures within different industries.

NIOSH does surveillance on injuries and fatalities, identifies patterns, works with jurisdictional agencies and different industries to bring down those fatality rates and then evaluates the results.

Jennifer Lincoln, director of the NIOSH Alaska Pacific Office, said that since the state has been tracking workplace fatalities in Alaska, the numbers have gone down significantly, especially in fishing and aviation. She said the reason for this is because of relevant and focused activities incorporated between NIOSH and the industries and other organizations.

“We’re not regulatory. We’re strictly a research organization,” Lincoln said.

The Alaska office produces NIOSH’s commercial fishing safety research for the entire country, which will also be eliminated.

Lincoln said that among the most disappointing aspects of he program closure is that the government didn’t pinpoint an exact reason why the commercial fishing part was cut.


The “other” PFD

One of the biggest examples of NIOSH’s research is with personal floatation devices, or PFD. Lincoln said preventing falls overboard and working with floatation devices are a high priority.

Lincoln described how 200 personal floatation devices were distributed to Alaskan fishermen to establish what types were preferred by different groups and what can be worn on deck. She said each vessel is different and evaluating separate needs is crucial to get more vessel operators to wear more devices.

“Each group identified a personal floatation device that would work for them,” she said.

Lincoln said the agency has gotten more feedback on mandated personal floatation device usage over the years and has given that information back to the industry.

Jerry Dzugan, executive director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association and chair of the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee, said the agency found out which floatation device types were rated high and were wearable, which encouraged fishermen to try them more. He said one of the “Deadliest Catch” boats now mandates devices after going through a NIOSH study.

Dzugan said NIOSH targeted research for different vessels in necessary and that fishing vessel research for the rest of the nation will be lost with this office.

“They are the only ones studying what would really be causing fishing problems,” he said.

He sees NIOSH as a resource that cannot go away. He said NIOSH evaluates perceived risks against actual risks, which is important for safety interventions. He said the U.S. Coast Guard only studies fishing safety every 10 years.

Dzugan said AMSEA developed a safety video after NIOSH found that although there has been a big drop in the number of fatalities since the 1980s, the number of men going overboard is about the same. This is partly due to lack of survival equipment on board some vessels.

“They’re no longer dying from boats sinking but they’re still dying in raw numbers,” Dzugan said. “You’d only know that if someone like NIOSH had teased out that data.”

Other fishing measures from NIOSH have included developing stability checks with the U.S. Coast Guard, safety initiatives with the Medallion Foundation and hydraulic wench system improvements with salmon fishermen. NIOSH has also worked with the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration.

Other examples of safety cooperation between agencies include marine safety training and ensuring Bering Sea crab vessels aren’t overloading.

“Those two are key,” Lincoln said.


Fishing deaths

The CDC reports that 31 percent of deaths on commercial fishing vessels nationwide between 2000 and 2009 resulted from falls overboard. CDC data show that 52 percent were from vessel disasters, 10 percent were from onboard injuries and 7 percent occurred while diving or on shore.

About a quarter of commercial fishing deaths in the nation between 2000 and 2009 happened in Alaska, according to the CDC. The agency reports that specific hazards identified in Alaska during the 1990s — most notably, overloaded crab boats — resulted in a significant decline in the number of deaths through vessel stability checks that began in 1999.

Since then, CDC expanded its surveillance to the rest of the country.

NIOSH programs have earned it widespread support in the fishing industry. The United Fishermen of Alaska has written to the Alaska delegation to try to save NIOSH.

One such letter to Sen. Lisa Murkowski asks for Congressional support in providing funds authorized through the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 to maintain the fishing program.

Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said the program is “extremely important to Alaska fishermen and to the industry.”

He praised NIOSH efforts for fishermen, pointing out the personal floatation devices in particular. He said different fishermen require different devices and NIOSH has tested and implemented proper devices for many different fisheries. He said NIOSH takes the different working conditions into account.

“It’s hard to estimate how many lives have been saved through (NIOSH’s) work,” he said.

Vinsel said NIOSH’s work in determining these different fisheries’ safety needs are necessary for alternative compliance programs that will be phased in through the Coast Guard Authorization Act. He said the government’s alternative to this research is to implement broad measures that aren’t tailored and so may end up costing a lot of money without any real safety improvements.


Fatality rates decline

According to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, seafood harvesting and aviation have the highest death rates in Alaska and accounted for more than a quarter of all work-related fatalities in 2009 and 2010.

According to the Labor Department, fishing has accounted for 275 deaths since 1992. CDC states there were 128 deaths per 100,000 workers reported nationwide for the fishing industry between 1992 and 2008.

This averages to 58 deaths annually.

In aviation, the Labor Department reports that air transportation, including commercial air taxis and helicopter services, accounted for 13 percent of all the state’s worker fatalities and 50 percent of transportation-related fatalities in 2010.

Aviation is the second-leading cause of workplace deaths and that between 2000 and 2010, 54 fatal crashes resulted in 90 occupational deaths in Alaska.

This is down from the 1990s when 108 recorded fatal crashes resulted in 155 occupational deaths.

In terms of aviation, NIOSH has worked with jurisdictional agencies to prevent controlled flights into terrain. Lincoln said that focusing on this type of crash has resulted in huge reductions in pilot fatality rates. She said focus groups will be conducted with operators and pilots this summer to examine ways to decrease fatigue.

Breaking down the Labor Department’s 2010 fatality rates by major industry, there were 5 fatalities in fishing, forestry, agriculture and hunting; 10 in construction, 10 in transportation and warehousing; 10 in government; and 4 in other industries.

Research analyst Sara Verrelli of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development said 2011 statistics for workplace injuries and illnesses won’t be available until Oct. 25 at the soonest.

Statistics for a 2011 census of fatal occupational injuries won’t be available until a tentative date of Sept. 20.

According to the Labor Department, Alaska’s workplace fatality rate has dropped considerably between 2000 and 2009. However, it still remains higher than in the rest of the country.

Alaska’s rate of workplace deaths across all industries was 5.6 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2009. The same rate was 10.8 deaths per 100,000 workers between 2004 and 2008, and as high as 31.4 per 100,000 in 1992.

The country’s average in 2009 was 3.5 deaths per 100,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in cooperation with state and federal agencies and the Census of fatal Occupational Injuries.

07/12/2012 - 9:09pm