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Commercial Fishing Fatalities

CDC INTERVIEW WITH JENNIFER LINCOLN, April 24, 2008, 2:00 p.m. ET

OPERATOR: Welcome and thank you all for standing by.  At this time, I would like to remind parties that your lines are on a listen-only mode until the question-and-answer session, at which time you may press star one to ask a question.  Today′s call is being recorded.  If you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time.

I will now turn the meeting over to Von Roebuck. Thank you, sir.  You may begin.

VON ROEBUCK, CDC MAIN PRESS OFFICE: Thank you very much, and welcome, everyone, to this CDC tele-briefing. I am Von Roebuck. I′m in CDC′s main press office here and assigned to Georgia.

Today′s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, MMWR, includes an article regarding the occupational dangers of commercial fishing in three western states, along with suggestions for safety improvements.  Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an occupational safety and health specialist in the National Institute of Occupational Health, also known as NIOSH – she′s in the division of safety and research.  And NIOSH, of course, is affiliated with CDC.

Dr. Lincoln works in the division of safety research at the NIOSH Alaska field station, and she′s joining us from Alaska today.  Dr. Lincoln will make a few brief comments about this article, and then we′ll take your questions.

So, Dr. Lincoln, if you′re ready to proceed.

JENNIFER LINCOLN, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH:  OK, thank you, I am.  I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak today.  I need to clarify a couple of things.  I work for the Alaska Pacific regional office, and I′m in the office of the director.  That′s a recent change within NIOSH.  My coauthor, Devin Lucas, and I have worked in the area of fishing vessel safety for a number of years.

NIOSH, as Von mentioned, is the federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations to identify and prevent work-related illness and injury.  I lead the NIOSH commercial fishing safety program.

I′d like to start first – before I get into the article, I′d like to give a short background of our work in fishing vessel safety and what has led us to the writing of this report.  Commercial fishing safety has greatly improved in Alaska since the early 1990s.  From ′90 to 2006, there was a 51-percent decline in the rate of fatalities among Alaska commercial fishermen.  The decline in the fatality rate is a result of improvements in safety.  Commercial fishermen, the industry, the U.S. Coast Guard, marine safety organizations and NIOSH have collaborated to improve the safety of the Alaskan fleet. 

Safety improvements in Alaska did not occur because of a single intervention.  Several were implemented, including the commercial fishing industry vessel safety act requirements that require boats to carry particular types of emergency gear, the development of a hands-on safety training program through organizations like the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association and the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners Association. 

Tailored safety interventions have also been developed for particular fishing fleets, such as the e-stop (an emergency shut off switch) to prevent severe winch injuries on commercial crab fishing vessels, the pre-season enforcement program mentioned in the MMWR article for the Bering Sea crab fleet and the Alternate Compliance Safety Agreement or ACSA program, developed for the head-and-gut fleet operating in western Alaska.

Fisheries management regime changes have also occurred that have resulted in a measurable improvement in safety in the effected fisheries, and all of these things combined have resulted in a measurable improvement in safety in Alaska.  So, to build on the successful experience that we′ve had here, our office started identifying hazards in high-risk fleets in other areas of the country.  And for this report, we analyzed data on commercial fishing fatalities from California, Oregon and Washington, during the years 2000 to 2006.

We looked at the types of fatalities and the contributing factors of these events to identify ways to prevent them from occurring in the first place.  We also reviewed the use of survival equipment to determine if there were patterns indicating further training in the use of equipment or further training in the promotion of the use of the equipment. 

We also reviewed the locations and types of fisheries these fatalities were occurring to determine which group of fishermen to work with to improve safety in the fleet.  We found that during 2000 to 2006, the average annual fatality rate for commercial fishermen in these three states was approximately twice as high as the national average and also twice as high for the Alaska fishing fatality rate during the same time period.

Seventy-four percent of the fatalities resulted from the loss of a vessel, and 19 percent resulted from a fall overboard.  We then took a closer look at vessel losses, and we found that the leading contributing factors to these events were weather conditions, large waves, flooding and vessel instability.  We noted other factors, such as crossing hazardous sandbars and drug and alcohol use by crewmembers.  We also found that most people who died due to a vessel loss were not wearing an immersion suit.  And none of them were able to enter a life raft.

When determining why they did not enter a life raft, we found that sometimes there was no life raft available.  And in other instances, the life raft malfunctioned and sometimes people just simply weren′t able to reach the raft once it had deployed.  We also reviewed the dockside exam status of these vessels that sank.  A dockside safety exam reviews the safety equipment that is required to be on board the particular vessel. 

It′s a tool that the U.S. Coast Guard uses to promote the safety in the fleet.  Three of the 23 vessels had a current U.S. Coast Guard dockside safety exam decal.  Another three had expired decals, meaning that their exam had taken place more than two years from the event.  However, 12 vessels did not have a decal and may have never participated in the safety exam program.

Next, we looked at falls overboard fatalities.  We found that none of the victims wore a personal flotation device when they perished.  And the contributing factors to these deaths included being alone on deck or being entangled in fishing gear.  When reviewing the fatalities by fishery, we found that the Pacific Coast fishery with the highest fatality rate was the Northwest Dungeness crab fishery.  We further compared this fleet to the Bering Sea crab fishing fleet, which is historically Alaska′s most dangerous fishery, and found that the Northwest Dungeness crab fleet had a greater number of fatalities and a higher fatality rate during the study period.  Of particular concern are the results showing a lack of the use of life raft and immersion suits.

In other NIOSH studies, we have found that the survival rate of vessel losses has increased with increased use of life rafts and immersion suits.  We have also found that survivors of vessel sinkings in Alaska were approximately seven times more likely to have worn a suit than decedents and 15 times more likely to have used a life raft.

In summary, to improve survival chances among Pacific Coast fishermen, added emphasis should be placed on formal marine safety training and the deployment and use of life raft and immersion suits and safety intervention should be tailored to the Northwest Dungeness crab fleet, with targeted pre-season safety inspections and safety and stability training.  Other areas of emphasis should include improved weather reporting and restrictions on crossing hazardous bars when warranted. 

NIOSH plans to continue to support the safety of the commercial fishing industry by assisting with research and evaluation of intervention and the development of intervention in the region of Washington, Oregon and California and across the country to prevent vessel loss, to prevent fatalities from falls overboard and to establish marine safety training programs for fishermen.  We recognize that our efforts are most effective through collaboration, and we look forward to continuing our partnership with fishermen and the industry, the U.S. Coast Guard and marine safety organizations.

Thank you for the opportunity to give this briefing today.  And I′m now pleased to answer any questions that you might have.

ROEBUCK:  Thank you, Dr. Lincoln. 

Operator, please, we will start taking questions now.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  If you′d like to ask a question during the call, press star one on your touchtone phone.  Press star two to withdraw your question.

Our first question is Manuel Valdez, Associated Press.  Your line is open.

MANUELVALDEZ , ASSOCIATED PRESS:  Hi, I′m just wondering whether the weather in the Pacific is different than up in the Bering Sea, and it′s harsher – is it harsher?  Are the waves bigger?  Or what are weather conditions there in the Pacific?

LINCOLN:  That′s a good question and I don′t know the answer to that.  The waters off the coast of Washington, Oregon and California are potentially warmer.  The waters in Alaska are cold water; immersion suits are required on all fishing vessels.

OPERATOR:  The next is from Lauren Cox, ABC News.  Your line is open.

LAUREN COX, ABC NEWS:  Hi, I was wondering if there were any trends in the fishing industry that could distinguish the fishing industries off of Oregon and Washington vs.  Alaska in terms of experience of the fishermen, age of the fishermen, whether or not they – the duration of the fishing season that could also explain some of these deaths and injuries?

LINCOLN:  That′s a good question.  There are certainly differences between the fisheries in these two locations.  As far as the age of fishermen, that′s not a data point that we had access to.  But definitely the fisheries are different.  In Alaska, you have larger fleets.  You have the fleet that operates in the Bering Sea is a larger catcher-processor fleet, carries more people and that′s where you see the large factory processors that are trolling for cod and pollack.  And off the coast of Washington, Oregon and California, they′re smaller vessels, and these events occurred closer to shore.  We did look at average distance from shore where these occurred, and they were closer along the Pacific Coast versus what we found in Alaska.

ROEBUCK:  And we′ll take our next question, please.

OPERATOR:  Again, if you have a question, press star followed by one. 

I show no questions at this time.

ROEBUCK:  OK, Dr. Lincoln, if there′s anything else that you wanted to add based on the questions or the comments that you made previously.

LINCOLN:  I think that the important main point to get across is that there should be added emphasis on formal marine safety training, that there was an indication of a lack of use of life raft and immersion suits and that tailored prevention strategies for the high-risk fleets, such as the Dungeness crab fleet are necessary to improve safety in this region. 

OPERATOR:  We do have an additional question.

Manuel Valdez , Associated Press, your line is open.

VALDEZ :  Are there any specific points, besides life rafts and life suits, that the fishing fleets improve on?  And, on the other side, which points can the government improve on – the Coast Guard or any government agencies to improve safety?  Are there, like, check-out points when people leave the ports to – you know, do boats have to check out with the Coast Guard or are they just free to come and go?

LINCOLN:  The vessels aren′t – to my knowledge, there′s not a check out point that you are – I don′t think that there′s such a thing as a check out point.  However, if you look at a particular fleet or a particular problem, there are opportunities to do something to interact with the fishermen, to try to do something to improve the hazards.  For instance, with the Bering Sea crab fleet, there was a preseason tank check that the Fish and Game did to make sure that there weren′t already crab in the tanks. 

The Coast Guard realized that and saw this as an opportunity to engage that particular fleet. So that was the start of the preseason enforcement program that I mentioned in the paper.  And tanks that I′m talking about are the fish tanks where crabs are kept. So it′s important to realize – I think my ongoing message is that there should be a tailored prevention for specific fleets and for particular problems.

ROEBUCK:  Thank you, Dr. Lincoln. We′ll take our next question.

OPERATOR: Again, if you′d like to ask a question, press star followed by one. 

One moment for the next question.

The next is from Tom Watkins, CNN.

Your line is open.

TOM WATKINS, CNN: How many fishermen are there in these particular areas?

LINCOLN: That′s an excellent question.  The way that we determine our workforce estimate is actually to calculate what′s called a full-time equivalent.  So as you may know, a fisherman doesn′t fish year round necessarily, so we wanted to make sure that we took into account how many days at sea someone fishes. So if you look at the – in the report, actually, the full-time equivalent estimate is located on, let′s see, page 428 at the top. 

And that gives the full-time equivalent estimate that we used. Now, nationally, there′s also information on the employment that the CFOI and – CFOI is the Census of Fatal Occupational Injury program.  And they estimate that the workforce is between 36,000 to 48,000 for the study period.

UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Thank you.

LINCOLN: And for the Pacific Coast, the FTE estimate was about 2,700.

ROEBUCK: Thank you, Dr. Lincoln.  We′ll take our next question.

OPERATOR: Again, if you have a question, press star followed by one. I′m showing no questions at this time.

ROEBUCK: OK, thank you, operator. And thank you, everyone, for joining us on this brief today.  Since today′s topic is involving occupational safety, please note – and this is also in our MMWR here this week – Monday is Worker′s Memorial Day; that′s April 28th.  

This is a national awareness established to recognize workers who died or were injured on the job. The goal of the day is to encourage everyone to think of ways in which we all can help to achieve the goal of safer and healthier workplaces. So you can check out more information at www.cdc.gov slash niosh.

And also if you have additional questions today about today′s tele-briefing, please give the main press office a call here at the CDC, and we certainly will take those questions and help you.  Also, a written a transcript of this briefing will be posted at CDC′s Web site later today. 

So without any further questions, we thank you and have a good day.

END

####

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES

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