Safety on board remains a concern for fishermen

First published in Landings, April, 2015.

Fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. Between weather, gear, and the mechanics of fishing, lobstermen face potential danger every day. How can they reduce their risk of injury? A seminar at this year’s Maine Fishermen’s Forum, called “Reducing Risk on Deck in the Lobster Fishery,” took a look at this question. The two presentations addressed two distinctly different but equally important aspects of day-to-day safety.

Scott Fulmer, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts who focuses on ergonomics, asked the lobstermen in the audience how many years they had been fishing. In total there were 265 years of combined experience in the room. “Experience,” said Fulmer, “is the best teacher.” Safety scientists look to the fishermen for problem-solving when it comes to risks from fishing.

Researchers have found that the majority of falls on deck are due to ropes on deck. Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association.

Researchers have found that the majority of falls on deck are due to ropes on deck. Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association.

“Where does your body hurt?” Fulmer then asked. He was answered with a collective chuckle. “Everywhere,” one lobsterman offered. Fulmer asked for more specifics and then circled those problem areas on a drawing of a person: hands, wrists, elbows, back, and shoulders. The back and shoulders are a couple of the most common places lobstermen report pain. “So how do we fix that?” he asked. “With ergonomics.”

Ergonomics is the science—and art—of fitting your work and your workplace to your strengths, capabilities, individual tendencies, and limits in order to prevent injury, explained Fulmer. “In other words, use your brain, not your back. Or, work smarter, not harder.”

Francis Coulombe, from the Quebec Fisheries and Aquaculture Center, and Sylvie Montreuil, of Laval University, each presented information from their study analyzing the risks to lobstermen of falling overboard and presenting ways to prevent that from happening. The study’s methodology drew heavily on fishermen’s own knowledge and approximately 160 hours spent observing lobstermen at work.

“We began this study in 2012 after two fatal overboard falls,” said Montreuil. Based on questions to lobstermen about 50 falling incidents, Montreuil and Coulombe found that a majority of falls were caused by ropes or lines on deck, a loss of balance, or while snaring buoys. Montreuil said the risk rated the highest by lobstermen (on a scale of 1-10) was weather, at an average of 6.5. Ranging below that were such things as the captain’s attitude, line and rope control, and the sternman’s attitude.

The top ten prevention strategies suggested by lobstermen were improved adherence to the deck (by using a non-stick surface, for example), better communication among the crew, improved arrangements for handling rope, a pace of work adapted to the situation, and improvements to the sorting table or gunwale.

“We hope to produce a video as a tool [to initiate] discussion with lobstermen,” Montreuil said. “We also have three types of bench and hauler layouts [designed with input from lobstermen] that we will be testing this summer.”

For more information, the full report can be found at