NIOSH to Fishermen: ‘Put one on, take the class, shut the door’

By Margaret Bauman

June 2012

Jennifer Lincoln has never fished commercially, but for two
decades at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health her
goal has been saving the lives of those who do, through better safety
practices and gear on board fishing vessels.

Since the early 1990s, more than 300 deaths have been prevented
because of a variety of efforts, from use of personal floatation
devices, and marine safety classes to the establishment of the
individual fishing quotas for halibut and sablefish, and US Coast Guard
dockside exams of crab fishing vessels, she said.

As director of the Alaska Pacific regional office of NIOSH, based
in Anchorage, Lincoln supervises research programs to improve safe
workplaces for those engaged in the oil and gas and aviation industries,
while spending most of her time on commercial fisheries safety

“The part of my work I love the most is commercial fishing safety
work,” Lincoln said in an interview with Fishermen’s News. “I feel like
what I do really makes a difference in fishermen’s lives. I try to make
sure the things we work on are relevant to fishermen. It’s something I
don’t know how to explain, (but) I have such a passion and interest that
it drives me.”

Lincoln, who holds a doctoral degree in health policy management
from Johns Hopkins University, is a strong advocate of providing science
to improve safety in the work place, with a specialty in commercial
fishing safety research. She has authored numerous journal articles and
reports related to commercial fishing safety. She is also regularly
consulted regarding marine safety issues.

In 2010, she was the first recipient of NIOSH’s award for
extraordinary intramural science in the category of early career
scientist, for her research to prevent work-related deaths and injuries
in commercial fishing.

Although Lincoln has not fished commercially herself, “I’ve tried
to get underway with fishermen so I can understand the deck rotation
and so forth,” she said. This has led to discussions with salmon
trollers in Southeast Alaska, lobster and multi-species groundfish
fishermen in New England, shrimp fishermen and Alabama and Louisiana and
more. She also travels extensively to talk about results of her
research, to compare notes with commercial fishermen and offer advice on
how to avoid injury and fatal accidents aboard fishing vessels.

At the recent annual commercial fisheries forum and trade show
known as ComFish, Lincoln and Chelsea Woodward, an engineering
technician for NIOSH in Alaska and Spokane, Washington, attracted much
interest with their forum on safety issues.

Their advice, in a nutshell, said Lincoln, was “put one on, take
the class, shut the door.” Every commercial fish harvester should find a
personal flotation device that works for him or her and wear it, take
an eight-hour survival class (offered by the Alaska Marine Safety
Education Association) and shut the doors on fishing vessels, she said.
“So often open doors lead to down-flooding,” she said.

Lincoln herself took an AMSEA basic commercial fishing training
course in Seward, Alaska back in March 1992, and met Jerry Dzugan,
executive director of AMSEA.

“I enjoyed meeting him, hearing about the various fishing
stories, and I guess that was my introduction to it and why I became so
interested in it,” she said. From there she went with US Coast Guardsmen
to do some dockside exams at Seward, and the passion for her work
hasn’t dimmed since.

Research studies have shown that survivors of commercial fishing
mishaps in Alaska were seven times more likely to have worn an immersion
suit, 15 times more likely to have used a life raft and 1.5 times more
likely to have had formal marine safety training, at least once every
five years, Lincoln reminded participants at Kodiak’s ComFish

AMSEA also notes on its website ( that over the
past several years commercial fishing has lost the dubious distinction
of being the most dangerous industry in the nation. The loss of life has
averaged about 11 lives a year for the last five years in Alaska,
compared to a loss of about 38 lives a year before safety training was
required. The greatest drop in fatalities in the nation has been in
Alaska, but commercial fishing is still a high-risk occupation, AMSEA
officials warn.

Half of the fatalities in the fishing industry have been the
result of vessel disasters. There are also incidents of fishermen going
overboard, injuries onboard, shore injuries and diving injuries.

“It is very important that harvesters wear those PFDs, she said.
Many fishermen argue that they will die within five minutes of falling
overboard anyhow, so why bother with the PFDs. “You will not die in the
first five minutes,” Lincoln told the Kodiak audience. “Hypothermia
doesn’t set in for 30 minutes. A life jacket will save your life. What
will get you is your body not being able to float.”

The next big excuse NIOSH has heard is that flotation devices are
hot, bulky and uncomfortable, but in fact NIOSH has tested a variety of
PFDs which are neither hot, bulky or uncomfortable, including very
light-weight vest PFDs which can be worn easily over rain gear.

“We bought 200 PFDs and distributed them to different fishermen
to test,” Lincoln said. “I know what a crabber needs is different from a

Of the PFDs rated by fishermen in Alaska so far the most popular has been the inflatable Mustang PFD, she said.

She continues to buy and test more, because she is convinced there is one that will work for every fish harvester.

Lincoln said in a way the effort to get fishermen to wear these
PFDs all the time is a one vessel at a time effort, but she was pleased
to receive a recent phone call from one of the six Alaska fisheries
community development associations, whose spokesman said that CDQ group
planned to purchase 600 PFDs to accommodate everyone who was delivering
fish to them.

Every time Lincoln meets with a fishing vessel owner she asks,
“What is your PFD policy? Have you found one that works for you?” If
they have, she wants to know when they are wearing them, if it is
whenever they are on deck, for certain activities or under certain
weather conditions.

Several owners of Bering Sea crab vessels, but not all, are now
mandating that their crew wear them, and so has the Alaska Scallop
Association, she said.

NIOSH also works continuously to improve deck safety, including
development of the emergency-stop system (E-Stop) for hydraulic deck
winches. The first NIOSH prototype of the device was put on a fishing
vessel in the spring of 2005, and then three or four more prototypes
were placed on vessels the following two summers, before it was licensed
to a manufacturer.

A research paper published in the Journal of Safety Research in
March 2008, Lincoln, Woodward and three other researchers wrote in
detail about reducing commercial fishing deck hazards with engineering
solutions for winch design.

They noted that the majority of hospitalized injuries among
Alaska commercial fishermen are associated with deck machinery. Their
paper described a “prevention through design” process to mitigate one
serious machinery entanglement hazard posed by a capstan deck winch.
After observing that the capstan winch provides no entanglement
protection and the hydraulic controls are usually out of reach of the
entangled person, NIOSH personnel met with fishermen and winch
manufacturers to discuss various design solutions to mitigate these

As a result, an emergency-stop system was developed that
incorporated a momentary contact button that when pushed, switches a
safety-relay that de-energizes the solenoid of an electro-hydraulic
valve stopping the rotating winch.

The vessel owners that had the system installed enthusiastically
recommend it to other fishermen, the researchers said. “This is an
example of a practical engineering control that effectively protects
workers from a hazardous piece of equipment by preventing injuries due
to entanglement,” the researchers said. “This solution could reduce
these types of debilitating injuries and fatalities in this industry.”

More recently, in late 2011, the National Transportation safety
Board released a series of recommendations related to safety in the
commercial fishing industry. The recommendations, NIOSH noted in its
electronic newsletter (
were a result of input given by industry experts, including Lincoln, at
the NTSB’s fishing vessel safety forum held in October 2010 in
Washington DC.

The NTSB cited NIOSH’s research into personal flotation devices
as a primary source for their recommendation that all fishermen should
wear a flotation aid while on deck. The NTSB also recommended a need to
address intact stability, subdivision and watertight integrity of
fishing vessels under 79 feet in length, and requiring all owners,
masters and chief engineers of commercial fishing vessels to receive
training and demonstrate competency in vessel stability, watertight
integrity, subdivision and use of vessel stability information. The NTSB
also recommended requiring owners of commercial fishing vessels to
install fall overboard recovery devices appropriate for the vessel and
to require all crewmembers to provide certification of completion of
safety training before getting under way on commercial fishing vessels.

More information on the NIOSH commercial fishing safety program is at

Margaret Bauman can be reached at