Commercial Fishing Safety: Falls Overboard

Photo of a simulated man overboard event from the NIOSH video Man Overboard Prevention and Recovery with a commercial fishermen signaling for help while immersed in the waters around Sitka, AK

Falls Overboard

Man overboard (MOB) fatalities are the second leading cause of death among commercial fishermen nationwide. Between 2000 and 2014 there were 210 fatal falls overboard in the United States and none of the victims were wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) when they drowned. Visit our PFD safety page for more information on personal flotation devices for commercial fishermen.


Starting October 2008, researchers from WSD-Alaska began visiting fishing ports around Alaska to conduct a two-part research program to reduce falls overboard fatalities in commercial fishing. The first part of the study was a questionnaire designed to measure fishermen’s perceptions of risk related to falls overboard. The second part of the project was an evaluation study of six modern PFDs designed to be worn by fishermen while working. 400 fishermen in 4 different fishing vessel gear types were randomly assigned a PFD to wear for 30 days on deck with an identical evaluation form filled out after the first day and the last day. The results were published in two peer-reviewed scientific journals and as a series of fact sheets designed to help fishermen find a comfortable PFD to work in on deck. Learn more about NIOSH’s PFD work on our PFD Safety Page.

Surviving a Fall Overboard

The most important step a person can take to survive a fall overboard is to wear a PFD. The ability to float provides a victim with more time to be rescued, even in cold water. A common misconception is that MOB victims die from hypothermia, but in reality MOB victims without flotation die from cold incapacitation (the loss of ability to coordinate movement needed for swimming). The National Water Safety Congress uses the “1-10-1external icon” principle to educate people about the survival time related to MOB incidents. Wearing a PFD is the best way to make sure you buy yourself as much time as possible.

Unwitnessed MOB Incidents

About 53% of man overboard fatalities happen when the fall is unwitnessed, meaning no one saw the victim enter the water or the victim was working alone. These types of MOB fatalities are especially prevalent in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery and North Eastern lobster fishery. Try to avoid working alone on deck if possible. Using a man overboard alarm, in addition to a PFD, can increase the chance that you will be noticed if you do fall overboard. If you must work alone, take special precautions such as deploying a boarding ladder or trailing line to assist in getting back onboard the vessel. Also, installing a water-activated or proximity engine kill switch will prevent the vessel from motoring away from you.

MOB Recovery Process

Man overboard incidents are survivable, but there are a number of actions that need to be taken by the victim and by rescuers to make survival more likely. For more information on the steps below, please watch our video Man Overboard: Prevention and Recovery.

  1. Float – wear a PFD on deck at all times! Visit our PFD Safety Page for more information on selecting a comfortable PFD.
  2. Signal/Notification – alert the skipper, crew, and/or nearby vessels about the MOB incident
  3. Communication – maintain visual contact with the MOB
  4. Mark the MOB location – throw life rings, buoys, totes, or marker lights to mark the spot. Input the spot into your GPS as well
  5. Turn the vessel – return to the location where the crewman went into the water
  6. Prepare a rescue swimmer – they can assist the victim in getting back onboard. Use an immersion suit and detachable tether
  7. Approach the MOB victim carefully – maintain visual contract and a safe distance depending on conditions
  8. Deploy a rescue device – throw a life ring, lower a sling, ladder, or other boarding devices to help them get back over the rail
  9. Mechanical advantage – use a hydraulic hauler or simple block and tackle to help lift the MOB out of the water more easily
Man Overboard Safety Resources

Fishing Safety Success Story: My Life Vest Saved Me
NIOSH Publication No. 2018-107d (March 2018)
Falls overboard are the second leading cause of death among commercial fishermen in the Unites States. Between 2000 and 2014 there were 210 fatal falls overboard in the United States and NONE of the victims were wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) when they drowned. This video tells Stan’s story, who fell overboard setting pots at the start of Dungeness crab season in Oregon and how his PFD saved his life.

Man Overboard: Prevention and Recovery
Learn tips on preventing man overboard fatalities on fishing vessels and the steps in a proper MOB recovery.
View this video on the NIOSH YouTube channel.

Paul Revere: A Story of Survival in Bristol Bay
A quick interview with two survivors of a skiff capsizing incident in Alaska. Learn how their PFDs extended their survival time and allowed them to rescue themselves.
View this video on the NIOSH YouTube channel.

Gear-specific PDF Fact Sheets
In 2012, NIOSH released the results of their PFD evaluation study as a series of gear-specific fact sheets to help commercial fishermen choose a comfortable PFD based on feedback from other fishermen.

United States Coast Guardexternal icon
The US Coast Guard provides Drill Instructor training that covers Man Overboard drills and other MOB safety topics. You can find training near you by going to www.fishsafe.infoexternal icon

Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA)external icon
AMSEA provides effective hands-on marine safety courses to the commercial fishing industry in Alaska and in other regions of the United States.

North Pacific Fishing Vessel owners Association (NPFVOA)external icon
NPFVOA provides hands-on marine safety training to commercial fishermen in the Pacific Northwest.

Cold Water Boot Campexternal icon and Beyond Cold Water Boot Campexternal icon
These training programs, developed by the National Water Safety Congress, highlight the specific safety issues related to cold water immersion and its effects on people.

Page last reviewed: October 1, 2021