Fishing Safety Research Projects


An image of a NIOSH researcher posing for photo in front of a Bering Sea crab vessel in Dutch Harbor, AK

Current Research Projects

The Commercial Fishing Incident Database (CFID) is a surveillance system managed by NIOSH to collect information on fatalities and vessel disasters that occur in the US fishing industry. Along with other data sources, our formal partnership with the US Coast Guard allows NIOSH researchers access to investigative reports for CFID data collection describing the events and the fishermen and vessels involved. The use of this detailed surveillance data has been critical in identifying priority hazards specific to fleets and regions across the US, as well as creating products that benefit fishermen, the Coast Guard, marine safety training organizations, and other partners.

Workers in the Southern Shrimp Fleet have a greater risk of fatality due to entanglement in machinery than other US fishing fleets. Based on injury characteristics, site visit observations, and input from vessel owners, NIOSH determined that the design and implementation of effective main-winch guarding and the use of auxiliary stops were feasible first steps in mitigating the entanglement hazard. NIOSH developed prototype standardized static winch guarding for three of the most prevalent winch types, with three rounds of field testing and improvement for winch model design. NIOSH also developed an auxiliary stopping circuit to be used in addition to the electrical try-net winch on/off control location. Both the winch guards and auxiliary stop devices are currently being tested in the Gulf of Mexico.

Occupational fatality surveillance has identified that fishing vessel disasters, such as sinkings and capsizings, continue to contribute to the most deaths among crewmembers in the US fishing industry. When a fishing vessel sinks at sea, crewmembers are at risk of immersion in water and subsequent traumatic injuries or death. This study examines survival factors for crewmembers following cold water immersion after the sinking of decked commercial fishing vessels in Alaskan waters during 2000–2014 in order to make tailored recommendations to mitigate the risk of fatality in vessel sinkings. Future research hopes to investigate crewmember survival factors in other regions.

Winch entanglements have been associated with both fatal and nonfatal injuries in the Southern shrimp fleet. While prototype testing of stationary guards and auxiliary stop devices is currently underway, NIOSH is further addressing the issue by developing fact sheets regarding the winch entanglement hazard for use in the US fishing industry. However, the most recent epidemiologic study of these injuries included data on injuries that occurred during 2000—2011. To fill this knowledge gap and provide more relevant findings, the updated fact sheets will report results from a new analysis that will include five additional years of data through 2016. Results from this study are expected to be published in 2017.

Hand injuries often occur on fishing boats during preparation, storage, and off-loading of frozen product. NIOSH epidemiologists and engineers are identifying hazard areas, investigating engineering solutions, and disseminating information on the use of safer methods, including potential modification of conveyances and work flow. NIOSH engineers have filmed and analyzed off-load procedures from two vessels and are now collaborating with industry safety leaders to develop testing protocols to improve material handling of conveyor systems. In the near future, lab testing will be conducted on material handling (box alignment) of mock-up product on a conveyor. A final report will be written by NIOSH and information presented to stakeholders in 2018.

Although events leading up to a vessel disaster are often unknown, it is believed that flooding through open doors or hatches, particularly into the lazarette (a storage area near the rear of the vessel), is a likely contributing factor. After meeting with vessel operators, the US Coast Guard, and fishermen to discuss various design options, NIOSH engineers began the development of an engineering intervention to reduce the likelihood of down flooding through open doors or hatches. The final design, a “Hatch and Door Monitor System”, incorporates a variety of sensors mounted directly on all critical doors and a “green board” on the bridge to indicate their status. Prototype Hatch and Door Monitor Systems have been installed on two vessels and are currently being tested in waters off Alaska. Preliminary results from this study are expected in early 2017, with testing ongoing.

In May 2014 NIOSH launched “Live to be Salty,” a multi-media health communication intervention developed to reduce drownings by promoting the use of PFDs on board commercial fishing vessels. The intervention sought to raise awareness among targeted high-risk fisheries in Alaska to the availability of PFDs comfortable enough to be worn at all times on deck and designed to align with commercial fishermen’s specific needs. Program messaging also addressed fishery-specific risks and common misconceptions related to cold water immersion and survival. Evaluation of the completed intervention will focus on impact, return on investment, and suggested improvements for future use with results expected to be published in 2017.

Nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses can result in lost work time, reduced wages, and large medical expenses, as well as permanent disability and lowered quality of life. NIOSH is now expanding research in the US fishing industry to include nonfatal injuries and illnesses. This initial step, using multiple data sources from Alaska, will (1) evaluate the utility of distinct data sources for conducting this type of research in the fishing industry, and (2) to calculate nonfatal injury and illness statistics, including rates and incident characteristics. Results from this study are expected to be published in early 2018. 

Prevention of non-fatal injuries is a priority in commercial fishing; however, it’s been difficult to assess the burden of these incidents due to a lack of available data. NIOSH has recently partnered with two US-based commercial fishing companies to assist with analyses of their injury claims data. Using more than ten years of company medical claims data, our objective is to estimate the burden, nature, and trends of non-fatal traumatic injuries among vessel employees, and identify opportunities for prevention. Results from this study are expected to be published in 2017.

Commercial fishing is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States, and the use of detailed surveillance data has been critical in identifying priority hazards to be addressed in order to reduce the number and rate of work-related deaths. The purpose of this study is to provide updated statistics for the entire US commercial fishing industry during 2010–2014, generate fleet-specific fatality rates using a revised calculation of FTE estimates, and examine changes in the patterns of fatalities and in risk over a 15-year period (2000-2014). A series of NIOSH regional summaries will be available in the first half of 2017, and more detailed data later on in the year.

Page last reviewed: February 13, 2017