Life Jacket Testing Project Moves Into Summer Phase

“This is not a regulatory project. This is to keep people from drowning.”
Rebecca Weil does not mince words. A research coordinator at the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety: Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (NEC), Weil is all too aware that falls overboard from fishing vessels are the most frequent cause of death in the Northeast commercial lobster fishery. Many of those deaths could be prevented if fishermen always wore personal flotation devices (PFDs) when working. She knows that many don’t, citing the PFDs’ awkwardness and tendency to catch and snag dangerously on deck.
The NEC, in partnership with Fishing Partnership Support Services of Massachusetts and McMillan Offshore Survival Training in Belfast, Maine, began a project last year to find out from lobstermen themselves the obstacles to wearing a PFD and to develop fisherman-suggested design modifications to make a better PFD. A similar study was done with Alaskan fishermen which revealed that optimal PFD design varies from fishery to fishery.
Weil and colleagues obtained eight different types of PFDs and went down to the docks in Massachusetts and Maine in January to solicit lobstermen to wear them while working. Each participant received a small stipend and got to keep the PFD at the end of the trial. “The Maine Lobstermen’s Association board suggested that we split the project into winter and summer seasons. We had about 80 lobstermen in Massachusetts and Maine wearing the PFDs in January and February,” Weil said.
The project staff also began to call lobstermen in the two states to conduct a short survey on fishing behavior and use of PFDs. “The survey is very simple,” Weil explained. “We ask questions like ‘does your boat have an open or closed transom?’ and ‘what would an ideal PFD design be for a lobsterman?’ Fishermen can add their thoughts about PFDs and help us in looking at design solutions and to see if we are on the right track. People have been great about the surveys. We know no one likes surveys, so we hope people understand the goal is to save lives and better understand ways to help, so that people can keep doing what they love — working as lobstermen,” Weil said. “Sometimes they call us back to take the survey after we leave a message on their phone!” Lobstermen are also asked about other value-added features PFDs could have that provide additional benefits besides safety.
During the final week of July, Weil and colleagues will be on the docks once again, beginning in Stonington, offering PFDs to lobstermen to test. Whoever is on the dock at the time they arrive is eligible to volunteer for the study, she said. The same activity will occur on the coast of Massachusetts during that week. “This project is just for lobstermen. We can’t answer these questions without them. It’s about keeping people alive,” Weil said.
The PFDs have been provided by Hyde Sportswear, Kent, Mullion, Mustang Survival, Quatic Apparel, Spinlock, and Stormline.

For more information, visit www.necenter.org/fishing/research/?id=28.Rebecca Weil can be reached at weil.rebecca@bassett.org.