What’s New at NIOSH: A Look at Current Research on Fishing Safety

(Top) A simulated man overboard event in the waters around Sitka, Alaska. (Above) A fisherman simulates the activation of the winch-mounted emergency stop system on the deck of the salmon purse seiner. Photos: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

By Devin Lucas, Samantha Case and Richie Evoy – National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health


Commercial fishing is a dangerous job with many challenges and competing priorities. With limited time and resources, managing the various hazards to vessel and crew can be demanding. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been helping fishermen identify and solve safety problems for over 30 years. This article gives a brief overview of current NIOSH research efforts aimed at helping the fishing industry protect its workforce and vessels from harm. 

Testing the Integrity of Immersion Suits to Determine Service Life

Immersion suits with leaking seams can allow cold water to enter, diminishing the buoyancy and thermal protection needed in an emergency. The U.S. Coast Guard currently uses a visual exam to find immersion suit deficiencies and condemn suits which are clearly unsafe.

However, suits that pass a visual exam still can have unseen damage causing dangerous leaks. In the summer of 2024, NIOSH and the Coast Guard will begin a four-year research project to collect 400 used immersion suits from fishing vessels in Alaska.

The suits will undergo pressure testing at a Coast Guard accredited facility to find and classify leaks. Data will be recorded on the manufacturer, age of suit, type of fishing vessel and storage environment.

NIOSH will use the data to measure immersion suit failure rates by age and other factors to provide practical suggestions on suit replacement.

PFD use Among Women in the Fishing Industry

For decades, NIOSH has promoted the use of personal flotation devices (PFDs) to prevent drownings. NIOSH previously worked with fishermen across Alaska to evaluate a variety of PFD styles and identify which were most comfortable to wear while working.

However, these studies included few women, who may have unique concerns regarding the sizing, fit and comfort of PFDs.

In this newly funded pilot study, NIOSH will examine women’s PFD use and opinions through a survey and PFD wear trial. The insights gained from this research could be used to enhance PFD designs to better suit the needs of women.

The study is expected to begin in the spring of 2025 and is part of a larger effort by NIOSH to understand the unique safety and health needs of women working in commercial fishing.

Crew member Survival in Alaskan Commercial Fishing Vessel Disasters 

Vessel disasters, such as sinkings and capsizings, are the leading contributor to fishing industry fatalities. Alaska’s remote and hostile maritime environment poses a heightened risk for commercial fishing vessels operating in those waters.

Using Coast Guard investigation reports and other data, NIOSH is exploring the spatial characteristics of fatal and non-fatal vessel disasters in Alaska from 2010 to 2019. The study uses GPS coordinates of each vessel disaster to determine the vessel’s distance from shore, nearest Coast Guard search-and-rescue facility, and nearest weather monitors.

This study also will analyze the response time and the types of responses (e.g., good Samaritan vessels, Coast Guard assets). NIOSH is expected to use the findings to identify search-and-rescue-related factors that increase the likelihood of surviving a vessel disaster.

Diving-Related Fatalities in the Fishing Industry

Performing dive operations, whether for harvesting or to conduct repairs or maintenance, presents unique challenges to commercial fishermen. This physically demanding work can result in injury or death due to ear, sinus or pulmonary barotrauma, decompression sickness (“the bends”), arterial gas embolism, nitrogen narcosis, oxygen toxicity, hypothermia or drowning.

The risk of diving has been demonstrated through previous NIOSH research that showed Alaska’s dive harvesters experienced one of the highest fatality rates in the country compared to workers in other fisheries.

To better understand these incidents, NIOSH is conducting an in-depth analysis of diving fatalities that have occurred in the fishing industry since 2000. The identification of risk factors, such as water conditions, fatigue, fishery management policies and financial pressures, can help inform practical strategies to protect fishermen who dive.

New Set of Commercial Fishing Fatality Regional Summaries

NIOSH collects a wide range of detailed information on all worker fatalities in the U.S. fishing industry. Researchers regularly analyze the data to help fishermen and safety organizations understand and prevent hazards resulting in vessel damage and crew member injuries.

NIOSH previously published two sets of summaries of fatality data divided into four regions: Alaska, West Coast, Gulf of Mexico and East Coast. The first set of regional summaries covered 10 years of fatality data, 2000-09, followed by the second set covering the five-year period from 2010 to 2014.

A new set of regional summaries is in production at NIOSH, which will provide an update on causes of fatalities in each region for the five-year period ending in 2019. Updated evidence-based recommendations for preventing fatalities will be included to help fishermen with ideas on how to improve safety on their vessels.


NIOSH uses a scientific approach to understanding the hazards of commercial fishing, with the goal of providing evidence-based recommendations to prevent workplace injuries and deaths. For more information about NIOSH fishing safety research, recommendations and products, visit the NIOSH website at: www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/fishing.   

The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and illness. The organization’s stated mission is to develop new knowledge in the field of occupational safety and health and to transfer that knowledge into practice.