The marine fisheries industry significantly contributes to the economy of many countries globally. Furthermore, it is the main source of the world’s food fish supply. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), commercial fishing is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States with a fatality rate 39 times higher than that of the national average. Additionally, in 1999, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that, worldwide, 24,000 fatal and 24 million non-fatal injuries occurred annually in the commercial fishing industry. Thus, while working in the commercial fishing industry is extremely dangerous, the actual levels and types of occupational health and safety risks vary over time.

What is Commercial Fishing?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines commercial fishing as fishing activities that utilize boats of over 10 gross tonnes, as well as highly efficient fishing techniques and gear, such as the use of light luring techniques, fish aggregating devices, sonar and echo sounders.

Who is at Risk?

Globally, fishing ranks among the four most dangerous sectors to work in, alongside agriculture, construction and mining. Individuals most at risk include skippers and crew members. In most cases, crew members are comprised of young workers under the age of 18, as well as migrant labourers.

Hazards and Risks in Commercial Fishing

While the dangers found in different types of fishing operations are very similar, the levels and types of risks arising from the specific dangers can vary from vessel to vessel. Some of the hazards and risks fishermen and other crew members are exposed to include:

  • Drowning This can result from: falling overboard while climbing from the deck to other parts of the vessel; slipping while walking along the edge of the boat; being swept overboard in rough seas; the vessel sinking or capsizing.
  • Injuries from slips, trips and falls. This is the most common hazard in the fishing industry given the crowded nature of vessels’ decks, the constant unstable motion of the boat, and the wet and often slippery conditions of the deck.
  • Ergonomics and musculoskeletal disorders. The job of a fisherman is physically demanding and strenuous. Work is carried out in repetitive motions and awkward postures for long periods of time. This might include activities such as standing, stooping, bending, hauling, carrying and handling heavy loads.
  • Cuts, punctures and abrasions. The hands of a fisherman are highly prone to injury and infections from knife cuts, hook injuries, crushed fingers and rope burns, as well as injuries from the fish/catch. For example: as a result of a sudden flip or the tail or jab by the beak or sword (mouth).
  • Machinery and equipment. Hoists and their cables and rope are especially dangerous. Additionally, fishermen can become entangled on fishing gear under tension, resulting in crushing injuries.
  • Electricity. Given the wet working environment, fishermen are prone to electrical shocks from portable equipment and cables. This can cause contact burns, cardiac and/or respiratory arrest and even death.
  • Lighting and visibility. Internal lighting is not often adequate.
  • Noise and vibration. Loud noise from the engine room can result in permanent hearing problems and damage or noise-induced hearing loss.
  • Chemicals. Chemicals, such as chlorine, which are used to wash and preserve fish, can irritate the membranes in the eyes, nose and lungs.
  • Sanitation, hygiene and diseases. Most vessels lack a clean drinking water supply, hand washing facilities and toilets. Therefore, hygiene levels are very low allowing for bacterial borne diseases to spread easily.
  • Extreme weather conditions. Exposure to the sun for long periods of time can cause cancers of the skin. Additionally, stormy weather can result in the vessel capsizing.
  • Stress and fatigue. In the fishing industry, regular work hours do not exist. The demanding nature of the job offers little opportunities for rest of breaks. Thus, the job of a fisherman can be very stressful and tiring.
  • Vessel safety. Lack of navigational, communication and sound equipment, as well as the possibility of fire and smoke inhalation are additional risks to fishermen.
  • Lack of provision of safety equipment and/or personal protective equipment. Many fishing vessels, especially in less developed countries are not equipped with lift rafts, life rings or life jackets.
  • Poorly trained skippers and crew members. In some countries, the commercial fishing industry employs migrant labour, which can cause language barriers. As a consequence, the fishermen lack suitable equipment, training, experience, information and judgment to avoid hazards and risks.
  • Poor work organization onboard. A wide range of factors influence work organization, which makes the issue difficult to address.

Improving Safety and Health for Fishermen

Following are few strategies that can be implemented to mitigate the effects of the hazards and risks fishermen are exposed to:

  1. Provide workers with adequate training and information on work place hazards and their control measures, as well as the proper use of machinery and equipment, etc.. Where language barriers exist, consider the use of interpreting services. To learn more about overcoming language barriers, check out 5 Steps to Creating a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Workplace.
  2. Provide workers with and encourage the use of personal protective equipment and safety equipment, such as life jackets, gloves, personal floatation devices, and non-skid boots. For more information on personal protective equipment, check out 6 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Guidelines Every Employee Should Know.
  3. Vessels decks should have non-slip surfaces. This can be achieved by mixing sand with the paint used for decks. Additionally, adhesive non-slip sheeting may be used in passageways, and decks should be washed down frequently to remove slippery waste.
  4. Promote and encourage the use of good safety standards and practices when using electricity. Read more about electricity in the work place here: Electricity in the Workplace: The Silent Killer.
  5. Ensure that workers have access to material safety data sheets (MSDS) for all chemicals used onboard.
  6. Discuss the signs and symptoms of stress and fatigue with workers, and encourage them to take short, frequent breaks when working. To learn more about workplace stress, check out Stress at Work: Tips to Reduce and Manage Workplace Stress.