Contributed by Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano
Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States.1 About 31,000 Americans are employed as fishers and related fishing workers, and they are subjected to hazardous working conditions, strenuous labor, long hours, and harsh weather.2 Because there are limited seasons for catching particular kinds of fish, boats may go out despite unfavorable weather conditions, placing workers’ safety at risk.3
When fishers become injured, it is often hard to get to a doctor or hospital quickly since the vessel may be out at sea or in an otherwise remote area. They are reliant on their shipmates and the response of the Coast Guard.2 Consequently, fatalities are higher than for other professions: over a recent 15-year period, the U.S. fishing industry experienced a rate of 117 deaths per 100,000 workers, while on average other industries experienced only 4 deaths per 100,000.1
1. Injured commercial fishers are entitled to federal compensation
Injured commercial fishers and other seamen do not receive workers’ compensation benefits like most other employees. Instead, they are eligible for three separate types of compensation under federal law: they may sue their employer for negligence under the Jones Act; they may sue the owner of the vessel under the federal maritime doctrine of unseaworthiness; and they may be entitled to receive what is known as “maintenance and cure,” regardless of whose fault the injury was. 7 Maintenance means the sailor is eligible for room and board during recovery (e.g. rent or mortgage, utilities, food) and cure refers to medical expenses.
2. Falling overboard is a leading cause of injuries and fatalities
Falls overboard may result from a misstep, slippery surfaces, large waves washing over the deck, ice formation, and entanglement in fishing equipment. Most fatalities from falls are caused by drowning or hypothermia after a boat sinks or capsizes.3
Missing, broken, or inadequate safety equipment also contributes to fatalities from falling overboard. The Coast Guard has been known to send fishing boats back to port if they find sub-standard survival suits, or life rafts that have not been inspected regularly, both of which can increase the risk of nautical fatalities. 3
3. Other kinds of falls also pose dangers
Every year, dozens of fishers are injured or killed in falls while performing required routine maintenance and cleaning on commercial fishing boats.5
To prevent falls, employers need to provide proper equipment, not just body belts or ropes around the waist. Adequate gangways and ladders must be provided for boarding vessels, walkways and work areas must be kept clear of cords and fishing lines, ladders should be stabilized and kept free of slippery grease, and cranes should not be used to hoist workers unless the equipment is specifically designed to do so. 5
4. Fishing workers are at risk from bad weather and boat malfunctions
According to Coast Guard statistics and safety experts, boats capsize or sink for a variety of reasons including bad weather, rough seas, flooding, fire, improper loading, mechanical problems, poor maintenance, and poor design.3 Additionally, malfunctioning navigation and communication equipment may lead to other dangerous situations such as collisions, shipwrecks, or vessels being caught in storms.4 Of fatalities among commercial fishing workers, nearly half are caused by vessel disasters.1
5. Confined spaces on vessels must be tested and ventilated
Fishers may have to enter confined spaces while performing routine maintenance, cleaning, or repair of commercial fishing vessels. These spaces can pose serious dangers to workers if not properly identified, tested, and ventilated. Your employer should ensure that a Shipyard Competent Person or marine chemist evaluates each space to insure it is in accordance with OSHA requirements.6
Common hazards include oxygen levels that are too low or too high, toxic gases and vapors, and flammable atmospheres. These conditions can occur in ballast tanks or voids, refrigeration spaces, sewage tanks, slop tanks, and holds. Employers should also be aware of what is brought into confined spaces—such as paints or chemicals—as these can create dangerous conditions for workers.6
6. Sprains and strains are common among fishing workers
Sprains, strains, and other soft-tissue damage (such as of the muscle or ligaments) constitute about one-third of non-fatal injuries and illnesses on fishing boats.2 These may be caused when guiding nets and traps onto vessels, or lifting heavy catch. Injuries to the back, shoulders, and neck are common, and can occur from a sudden trauma or from repeated use of the same muscles over time.
7. What to do if you get injured
If you are injured or become ill while on the job, you are entitled to appropriate compensation. It’s important to get in touch with a maritime injury lawyer right away; an experienced attorney can protect your rights and get you the benefits you deserve.