Young Mechanical Engineer Learns the Ropes on Fishing Boats

Posted on by Theodore D. Teske, MA
This week is National Engineers Week which is dedicated to ensuring a diverse and well-educated future engineering workforce by increasing understanding of and interest in engineering and technology careers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) employs over 200 engineers and engineering technicians who identify, evaluate, develop, and implement engineering control technology to prevent occupational disease and injury. NIOSH engineers cover various disciplines including: biomedical, civil, chemical, computer, electrical, industrial, mechanical, mining, and safety engineering. Engineers are an important part of public health efforts. Many of the solutions developed by NIOSH engineers are adopted by industry, saving the lives and improving the health of American workers. To honor our engineers, the blog will highlight examples of their work throughout the week.


David Sweet jumped in with both feet when he became a mechanical engineering contractor for the Western States Division’s (WSD) Commercial Fishing Safety Research and Design Program. A recent graduate of Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, he parlayed an engineering senior design project into his first post-college job through enthusiasm and a meticulous approach to addressing challenges in engineering safety interventions for the commercial fishing industry.

His team’s mission was to develop methods for further preventing winch entanglement injuries among shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. NIOSH engineers had already identified four major factors contributing to winch entanglements among these workers and begun the work of developing retrofittable guard systems to address entanglement in the main winch drums. David’s team began working on solutions to prevent fishermen from becoming entangled in the winches rotating catheads. David says that first experience taught him, “that one problem can have several different factors to consider and it is our job as engineers to make sure we have thought through each of these factors before we can produce a worthy and acceptable solution.” This focus on acceptability by the end user is a key component of NIOSH’s research to practice ethos, and a key feature of WSD’s approach to engineering solutions for the fishing industry.

David Sweet takes measurements off a 503 McElroy winch aboard the fishing vessel Elisabeth T, operating out of Intercoastal City, Louisiana.

After graduation David joined NIOSH as an engineering contractor and continued to support the winch guard project. He was also asked to work with one of WSD’s epidemiologists to address non-fatal material handling issues on freezer trawl vessels in Alaska. These large (300’+) vessels catch, process, and package fish into 50 pounds boxes and stack them in hangar size freezer holds aboard the vessel. NIOSH research has shown that most non-fatal injuries on these vessels come from the process of moving the frozen boxes during unloading. Again, David was asked to assess the process and look for ways to apply engineering interventions to prevent crushing injuries to the hands of the workers. One of the biggest challenges faced by engineers working with commercial fishing vessels is the lack of consistency or standardization to vessel design. According to David, “The equipment, setup, process, and mindset of the workers are all different from boat to boat. As such, there are always new obstacles that must be accounted for in each design.”

When asked what influenced him to pursue a job with NIOSH as opposed to other large engineering companies in Washington state, the Spokane native said, “Working for a large company such as Boeing was an attractive thought, but I really want to directly help people with the work that I do and I believe working at NIOSH allows me to do that. We have a strong team here who are dedicated to that same ideal.” This stakeholder-focused mission has given David the opportunity to travel to the field on multiple occasions to see how the work is done and where his expertise might be applied to reduce injuries and fatalities. He has spent time on the docks in Washington, Louisiana, Texas, and North Carolina.

When asked where he sees himself in 5 years, the young engineer sees himself in the same place he is now, “would like to see myself continuing to develop safety interventions for workers in the commercial fishing industry. The need is strong and there are several opportunities waiting.”

Please share with our readers examples of workplace safety and health problems that engineers in your organization have helped solve.

Theodore D. Teske, MA, is a Health Communication Specialist in the  NIOSH Western States Division.

For more information

NIOSH Fishing Engineering Solutions

Celebrating Engineers

Engineering and Public Health at CDC

Engineering Controls

Posted on by Theodore D. Teske, MA

6 comments on “Young Mechanical Engineer Learns the Ropes on Fishing Boats”

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    My hats off to everyone that’s out there helping and for the rest who are making it possible for them to be there…

    When I began taking an active interest in the engineering side of the boat. I’d been fascinated by machinery since I was a young and playing with my brother, and it’s because he has a lot of interest. It wasn’t long before I was channeling my curiosity into the mysterious workings of the engine room.

    I would love to do this for a job as I’m an engineer with a passion for all types of fishing. It’s great to see the hard work being put in by these engineers on these boats.

    I’m from a mechanical engineering background specifically machining based. It’s interesting to see different areas and the work involved.

    Great work guys

    For Mechanical engineers this is a good story and yes, fishing can give you a great experience

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Page last reviewed: March 12, 2018
Page last updated: March 12, 2018