Lobstermen use their hands and wrists more intensively than workers in many other jobs. The actions of hauling traps, removing the lobsters, measuring, banding, tossing back undersized lobsters, rebaiting, closing the trap and resetting involve the hands and wrists.
So it is not a surprise that for lobstermen the hands and wrists are the leading location for acute injuries, such as cuts. In terms of general long-lasting pain, the hands and wrists are the third-most common location for pain and discomfort. Only the low back and the right shoulder area are more commonly mentioned as locations for chronic pain.
In a sample of 395 lobstermen interviewed about aches, pain, and discomfort, 1 out of 5 had experienced pain in the hand/wrist area caused by work in the three months prior to their interview. Half of them experienced the pain in both hands. Only about 1 in 20 of those who experienced pain in at least one hand, however, received treatment for these pains according to the study by the Northeast Center for Occupational Safety and Health.
In a similar survey of 286 captains interviewed every three months for four years, 200 reported acute injures in the hand/wrist area. Of those 200, 56 acute hand/wrist injuries were severe enough to affect the normal work process. Cuts and sprains were the most common injuries. Broken bones, amputations, and burns were relatively rare events.
Typical items that increase the risk for acute injury include sharp edges of knives, trap wire, bait irons, lobster claws, etc., as well as pinching or being caught in between heavy objects. Risk factors for acute or cumulative trauma to the hand/wrist generally include muscle exhaustion, awkward joint angles and forceful exertion. Without proper rest, recovery, and return to normal strength, the muscles and soft tissue in the hand/wrist area can be seriously injured and lose function.
People like to try their own ideas to reduce exposure to risk of injury, and lobstermen are no exception. They often devise “fixes” that reduce their risks. For example, they might try different gloves. The right kind of glove is partially a matter of comfort, strength and durability. Last spring, a project conducted by high school students in the Eastern Maine Skippers Program and in the North Haven Community School examined this issue and presented their findings at the 2020 Maine Fishermen’s Forum. Not surprisingly, they reported that it was difficult to purchase comfortable, protective gloves that would fit under the rubber gloves worn by lobstermen.
Research indicates that commercial fishermen prefer ideas that have been proven, and, more importantly, ideas that they can adapt in their own way. Locating tools (knives, gauges, banders, etc.) in easily accessible locations, for example, can reduce unnecessary movement, save time, and reduce awkward postures. Some people use Velcro to attach a knife to an oilskin strap, which has the added value of always being available in case of emergency. Hand tool handles can be modified to reduce an awkward wrist angle, for example, or the muscle strength required to use the tool. A thicker handle on a lobster gauge, for example, requires less forearm hand-force to grasp than one with a smaller handle.
Modifications can be made to the hydraulic controls on the dashboard and even to the wheel itself. The angle and location of these controls should let you stay in a neutral posture and not require awkward or static postures for any length of time. With cable-linked, circular hydraulic valve controls, the hauler control and the boat’s power controls can be installed at an angle that allows the captain to maintain a neutral hand/wrist posture. This can also help maintain a neutral shoulder and back posture as well.
In closing, if you have hand/wrist pain, review your movements and activities to figure out which ones are causing pain. Does the pain come from gripping and grasping, or from movement you repeat over and over, or from a tool that requires a non-neutral angle between the wrist and hand or that puts pressure on your palm?
When not fishing, try to avoid activities that cause the same pain. Think about changing your hand motions or your tools. Perhaps add comfortable, warm gloves to your routine. And remember that your indoor winter activities, such as working with rope or sanding buoys, could contribute to hand/wrist pain. Finally, consider consulting a physician about the pain you are experiencing to address the issue before it becomes a serious or hard-to-treat condition.