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

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 research.

“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 discussion.

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 longliner.

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 hazards.

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