Lifejackets for LobstermenPosted on by
Falls overboard are the most frequent cause of death on the job for lobstermen in the U.S. The on-the-job death rate for fishermen nationwide is 31 times higher than any other industry. It is well-documented that wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) can help prevent these tragedies, but unfortunately most fishermen do not routinely wear a PFD. Staff from the Northeast Center for Occupational Safety and Health were determined to find out why and to identify promising strategies for increasing PFD usage in the lobster fishing industry. The Lifejackets for Lobstermen project was thus born.
Starting in 2014 the team spent two years gathering feedback from fishermen on the challenges and the benefits of wearing life jackets and other PFDs. The team asked fishermen to share their thoughts about lifejackets and to identify things they would change to make them more appealing. Over 550 Northeast fishermen were surveyed in person, by phone, and through the mail. Fishermen, association leaders, safety trainers, industry experts, and other researchers provided candid input throughout the process.
The team learned that for a Northeast lobsterman, a primary barrier to PFD usage was that they are not comfortable to work in. Spending up to 12 hours a day hauling traps and moving gear in all forms of weather requires a lifejacket that allows a fisherman to get his work done without making work more difficult. It can’t be so bulky that the fisherman can’t reach into traps or work on an engine. It can’t add to the already high risk of gear entanglement with straps and buckles or extra pockets. It needs to allow the fisherman to move fully, quickly, and adeptly through the work of the boat. Fishermen expressed frustration about lifejackets, concern about cost, and skepticism that they could work in a PFD all day.
Next, the team worked to find a wide range of lifejackets and PFDs that were as workable and comfortable as possible, adopting a study design originally developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Commercial Fishing Research and Design Program for research conducted with fishermen in Alaska. On-board, at-sea trials were run during the winter and summer months of 2017. A total of 181 fishermen volunteered to spend 4-6 weeks wearing a randomly assigned model of lifejacket. Based on the input from the trials, 11 highly-rated PFD models were chosen for the Lifejackets for Lobstermen program.
In April of 2019, two vans stocked with lifejackets set off along the Maine and Massachusetts coastline to bring a variety of lifejacket models directly to the docks for commercial fishermen to try on, compare, ask questions, and “try before the buy”. The products were only for sale to commercial lobstermen and commercial fishermen with a lobster bycatch license. A one-time 50 percent discount was provided to encourage fishermen to invest in a lifejacket.
The lobstermen and fishermen came—some reluctantly or coerced by a family member but just as many deliberately, to visit the vans. Some drove out of their way, bringing crew along with them, to purchase a lifejacket or other PFD. Fishermen and their families were following the vans’ itinerary on social media and texting and calling to urge the lifejacket van drivers to come to their home ports.
From April 1, 2019 through November 18, 2019, the Lifejackets for Lobstermen vans visited 61 ports and sold 1,087 lifejackets and PFDs. Flotation bibs were among the most popular items sold on the vans. See all of the items offered on the website.
Story of Survival
“In February, I had a crewman who was wearing the bibs. As he went to pull on a line, it snapped, and he flipped overboard. And as I turned around, I’d seen his legs going over his head.
We were able to get the boat turned around and get to him within a minute, but the bibs kept him above water. By the time we got to him, he had no use of his hands and legs – he wouldn’t have been afloat if it wasn’t for those (flotation bibs)”.
-Mike Bartlett, Captain, Beverly, MA
Staying aboard, staying afloat, being found, and re-boarding/recovery are core components to surviving falls overboard. Although wearing a lifejacket or other PFD will increase the chance of survival and provides rescuers with more time to launch a safe rescue effort, it takes time to locate a fall overboard victim and get them back into the boat. Drills and safety trainings help to ensure an efficient recovery effort.
In April of 2021, Fishing Partnership Support Services (FPSS) took over Lifejackets for Lobstermen, which fits with their mission to provide safety trainings, health insurance, and other support for commercial fishermen. The Lifejacket Van will be featured at safety trainings and made available to commercial fishermen and fisheries throughout the Northeast. To schedule a training or to find out about their plans for the Lifejacket Van, contact Fishing Partnership Support Services at 617-928-3443.
Ultimately, it was the fishermen who developed the solution and the Northeast Center credits the fishing community with making the project a success. This project also demonstrates that there are PFDs on the market that can be worn comfortably while working on the deck of a commercial fishing vessel. We urge all fishermen to wear a PFD. If you don’t already have one, May 21st is National Wear Your PFD to Work Day and a great reason to buy your first.
Read more about this innovate program on the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety website. Visit the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Commercial Fishing Website for more information on keeping commercial fishermen safe.
Julie Sorensen, Director of the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety
Rebecca Weil, Project Coordinator for the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety
Jessica Echard, Project Coordinator for the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety
Amanda Roome, Fieldwork Research Coordinator for the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety
Erin Lally, former Fieldwork Research Coordinator for the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety
Funding for the Northeast Center’s Lifejackets for Lobstermen Project was provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health through research grant R01 OH011029 U54OH007542 . This blog is part of a series highlighting extramural research funded by NIOSH through the Office of Extramural Programs.