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Could the Deadliest Job be a Little Safer?

alaska-fishing-1Workplace Fatalities

On the fishing docks of New England, almost everyone knows a fisherman who died at sea.

Joe Neves, a boat captain for over 30 years, remembers when one of his crew was knocked overboard. “We heard him screaming ‘Help me!’ ” Neves recalls, looking at his shoes. “But you know, on the water at night, your head is like a little coconut.” The crew never found him.

Another man on the docks, Mike Gallagher, found a friend who was wrapped up in still-running hydraulics. “I knew right away he was dead,” he says.  Meanwhile, Fred Mattera was fishing off the coast of Cape Cod when the 20-year-old son of his long-time friend died from inhaling poisonous fumes. “That was a brutal week in this port,” he says.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies commercial fishing as the deadliest job in America. And despite the fact that the hit reality TV show, The Deadliest Catch, focuses overwhelmingly on Alaskan crab fishermen, the most dangerous fishery in North America is actually located in the Northeast. Between 2000 and 2009, the odds of being killed on the job while working the groundfish fishery (cod and haddock) were 37 times higher that odds of workplace fatalities for police officers.

A report by the National Institute for Health and Safety (NIHS) shows that 70% of those fatalities – and those in the second-deadliest fishery, Atlantic scallops – occurred dues to accidents like a vessel catching fire, capsizing or sinking. The other deaths resulted from injuries on deck or from workers falling overboard — which is often caused by heavy overhead equipment. Of those who fell overboard and drowned, not one was wearing a life jacket.

A study by the Center for Public Integrity discovered that despite earning the notorious distinction of America’s deadliest job, commercial fishing operates in a cultural tradition and regulatory environment that consistently skirts regulation and safety measures.

Workplace Injury & Fatality

Despite the strikingly high fatality rate in the fishing industry, reform measures have taken decades to come to fruition. In 1988, Congress passed a law requiring fishing vessels to carry lifeboats, personal flotation devices and other workplace safety equipment.  But while the Coast Guard requires regular inspections and proof of “seaworthiness” from passenger ferries and other commercial vessels, fishing boats are not required to undergo inspection.

Jack Kemerer, supervisor of the U.S. Coast Guard fishing division, explains that “We’ve … requested authority to do inspections on vessels,” but Congress did not include that power. “I can’t answer why or why not,” Kemerer says. “But, you know, it’s not that we haven’t asked for it in the past.”

Most fishermen resist being supervised, and a significant number harbor a fatalistic outlook on their life at sea. New England fishermen used to wear steel-toed boots, regarding it better to drown quickly if they fell into the freezing Atlantic. Others maintain a rugged individualism and consider themselves to be the last “cowboys” on the ocean.

Captain Bill Amaru owns one of the last cod-fishing boats in Chathams, a small port near Cape Cod. He says he resists regulation because he’s tired of “so much federal ‘nanny state,’ kind of telling us how to operate — when I think I have a pretty good understanding of what I need to do to keep safe.” Unfortunately, however, Amaru is not only taking his own life in his hands – he’s also responsible for others, at workers compensation attorneys point out.

Some, however, take a different view. After Fred Mattera tried to save the 20-year-old son of his friend when his boat was overtaken by poisonous fumes, he realized that nobody knew exactly what steps to take to help the fellow workers. The radio was no help, either.

“What I heard there was this hodgepodge [of] try this, try that,” Mattera remembers. “And nobody knew for certain.”  Mattera told his friend he would make something good out of that tragic loss of life. “I just said, I promise you, we need to change the culture. We will make this a safer industry.”

The experience transformed Mattera into a safety advocate.  Last month, he helped the crews of several fishing boats organize an exercise to prevent work injury and respond to disaster training and falling-overboard exercises.

Workplace Safety Drills

In one drill, members of the fishing crew scramble into bright orange water survival suits. Insulated and buoyant, the suits envelop individuals from head to foot, with only their faces sticking out exposed. The group then practicing “abandoning ship” in the case of a fire or capsized boat. Participants jump off the boat into the dockside water. Even in these calm conditions, wearing the suit feels claustrophobic, and many thrash around until they get accustomed to the gear and regain their bearings.  “Get your panic out now!” Fred Matter yells from the dock. The immersion suits are built to keep crew-members alive and afloat in the freezing Atlantic waters until they are rescued.

Mattera instructs them to link up with each other and paddle as a single unite to a life raft, where they help each other climb in.

When the exercise is done, the crew is exhausted.  Boat captain Norbert Stamps was shocked by how difficult the exercise was. As he explains the training, “You jump in, you kind of realize that this isn’t fun and games. This is real serious stuff. And you gotta practice, and you gotta know what to expect.”  Mike Gallagher, another member of the same fishing crew, has noticed that trainings are incresingly common. “To be honest with you,” he says, “the safety thing hasn’t really been paid much attention to until the past several years. Really, it’s been overlooked.”

These steps forward may be small, but they are hardly insignificant.  Fred Mattera and others now want to replicate these in the Northeast, the real zone of Americans “deadliest catch.”  Following that deadly accident in 2001, Mattera has provided safety training to hundreds of fishermen in Rhode Island. And he hopes this is only the beginning.

“I’m just a fisherman,” Mattera says. “That’s what I loved, and that’s what I did for a long time. I promised a family we’d make a difference. [As long as] I’m still breathing, that’s what we’re going to strive to do.”


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