Americans are typically larger than the residents of many other countries. With that size comes the need for stronger back muscles. The larger your torso, the more force the muscles of the low back need to generate to maintain your posture. An overweight lobsterman’s back will have to work harder than the average person’s back, even without the everyday repetitive lifting of traps and other gear. Add the cumulative effect of this work with the effort required to maintain posture and balance, and it is no surprise that back pain is such a common experience among lobstermen.
In a sample of 395 lobstermen interviewed as part of a Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety study at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell about aches, pains and discomforts, half reported low back pain occurring within the last three months. Relatively few lobstermen sought treatment for the pain. While other locations of pain were not reported as often, lobstermen were more likely to get treatment for those other locations. Why? It may be that the experience of back pain is so common that lobstermen know too well that it is difficult to treat and that after treatment, they will go back to potentially painful work again. So what can you do?
In a similar survey of 286 captains interviewed every three months for four years (2012-2016), new acute low back injuries that affected a lobsterman’s routine work occurred at a rate of about 5 per 100 lobstermen per year. The rate did not change over those four years. In the construction industry, by contrast, back injuries occur at a rate of about 0.2 per 100 workers. This means that new low back pain injuries occur 25 times more often in lobstermen than in construction workers.
Repetitive motion, bending and twisting your torso, and forceful exertion are all risk factors for low back pain, all of which occur regularly while lobstering. Without proper rest, recovery, and conditioning, the muscles and soft tissue in the low back area can be hurt, even debilitated. Unfortunately, the demands of keeping up with traps coming up on the rail may not always allow time for proper rest and recovery.
So what can you do?
Brief rest periods may be enough for some muscle recovery, such as sitting while the boat is steaming, or between strings. Back stretches while steaming can help to loosen soft tissue and prevent strain. A physical therapist should be able to advise lobstermen on appropriate stretches.
Some lobstermen have found inversion tables help them by enabling them to suspend themselves upside down. Inversion tables work by reversing the effect of gravity on the spine, thus enabling the spine to decompress.
The task of breaking a trap down onto the washboard is not too complicated. If you look carefully at a lot of different boats, you may note differences in the relative height and horizontal distances of the hauler, block, and washboard. There may be trade-offs between optimal heights and distances. For example, a lower block height to help reduce shoulder extension might require more back bending, which is not ideal. The key to increasing the biomechanical advantage when breaking the trap down is to handle it as close to your hips as possible without bending or twisting.
Ideally, your equipment and techniques suit your capabilities as well as fit the boat. The force of the hauler can be used to guide the trap, palms down, onto the washboard, rather than bending, grasping, and lifting the trap onto the washboard with minimal assistance from the hauler. When breaking a trap down, some people handle traps with palms down, some to the side, and some with palms up. This technique might be a factor of how fast your hauler can pull in the trap, and if it comes up without getting tangled or stuck on a toe rail as it comes out of the water. Wind, tide direction, and tangled lines make handling forces more complicated. Reducing the width of the washboard under the block can help bring the trap closer to the hips without increasing effort. Some lobstermen have cut a semi-circle out of the rail under the hauler to reduce the distance from below the block to the hauler and therefore increase their closeness to the incoming trap.
Research indicates that commercial fishermen prefer ideas that have been proven, and, more importantly, they prefer ideas they can adopt and adapt in their own way. Adaptation may be a gradual process. It may take years to make a boat feel right. In the meantime, the work must be done. It may help to know that many others have suffered similar pain and attempted different solutions. Spreading good ideas may help prevent back pain and keep lobstermen in good health longer.