Use Ergonomics to Prevent Pains, Strains & Chronic Lames

An example of a stretching exercise. Photo courtesy of Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.

Ergonomics is about adapting the workplace and tools to fit you better, so that you have less strain and chronic pain.

After interviewing 426 fishermen on the West Coast in 2015, the Fisherman Led Injury Prevention Program at Oregon State University learned that sprains and strains were the most common limiting injuries, with handling gear on deck the most common cause. For over 30 years Alaska Fishermen’s Fund data has demonstrated that muscular skeletal disorders are the main source of insurance claims.

When fishermen think about inherent risks, we usually think of things like weather, loading our vessels, handling gear, etc. But the risks to our bodies from repetitive motion, strain on the back, lifting and other forces cause injury over time and can lead to chronic muscular/skeletal injuries.

There are 19 tips that we can offer as tools, safer practices and simple deck alterations that can dramatically reduce risk of injury caused by the physical demands of commercial fishing.

An example of a Carpal Tunnel Syndrome prevention exercise. Photo courtesy of Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.

For Your Shoulders, Elbows, Wrists and Hands

  • Avoid lifting above your shoulders.
  • Use the best working height for the task. Precision work should be higher and closer to your upper body, four inches above the elbow. Light work should be at a medium height, just below the elbow. Heavy work should be about waist height, four to six inches below the elbow.
  • Raise hatch covers or make a sorting table to position your body at the correct level for the task.
  • Do shoulder stretches. Elbow stretch: bend elbows to 90 degrees, pinch shoulder blades together, rotate arms out, keep elbows bent, and repeat 10-30 sets. Shoulder shrug: shrug shoulders up and backward 20-30 times per day, every few hours.
  • Maintain a neutral posture in your wrist/hand. Large forces on a bent wrist cause tendonitis. Use tools with a bend in the tool – not a bend in your wrist!
  • Keep warm. Cold causes more stress on muscles, forcing you to grip harder. Use warm gloves and wristers.
  • Get a grip on it: Use tools with a proper diameter handle (two inches). Use a non-slip handle or gloves. Use a full-force grip, not a pinch grip.
  • Use wrist splints when possible to keep wrists in a neutral position.
  • Do Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) prevention exercises. If the hand is in pain, is tingling, cramping, numb, has burning pain that is worse at night or has a weak grip, treat for CTS. Stop the activity if you can or rotate jobs. Keep your wrist in a neutral position, wear a splint, keep warm, talk to a doctor, take vitamin B-6 and use anti-inflammatories before, during and after the activity.
(Top) An example of a squat lift exercise. (Above) An example of a tripod lift exercise. Photos courtesy of Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.

For Your Back

Preserve the four natural curves in your spine. The more distant a load is from your body, the greater the stress is on your back. Use better lifting strategies. Look at the horizon, not at the object you are lifting. Use your legs, not your bent back and practice using the golfer’s lift, tripod lift and deep squat lift.*

  • Pushing an object creates lower stress on the back than pulling, generally.
  • Move your feet. Don’t twist your body while lifting.
  • Use two people to lift when possible.
  • Lift by using your hands behind your back in a two-person lift.
  • Move just one end of a board or box instead. It has 50% of the weight.
  • Standing is better than sitting. On hard decks, use mats to stand on with sloped edges to prevent slipping.
  • Switch work duties regularly.
  • Place heavy items on shelves, fish trays mid-torso height.
  • Stretch before you catch. This will give more blood and oxygen to your limbs, increase flexibility and agility, make you more alert and make you more productive. Also stretch before, during and after fishing. Develop a year-round daily stretching/strengthening routine.

Use ergonomics to lower pain, reduce injuries and medical costs, catch more fish with less effort and extend your working lifespan.

Happy ergonomic fishing! 

The Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) has a mission is to reduce injury and death in the marine and freshwater environment through education and training provided by a network of marine safety instructors. The Sitka, AK-based organization has been offering marine safety training to commercial fishermen and thousands of other mariners since 1985.

More information on marine safety topics can be found at

*A free booklet on ergonomic ideas and exercises for commercial fishermen is available at