The Economics of Ergonomics – Making Safety Pay

By Michael A. Moore

Sitka salmon troller Eric Jordan may have discovered the secret to make fishing more fun, profitable and injury free. It’s one word – ergonomics.

“Fishing is way more enjoyable because of how smoothly everything goes,” said Jordan. “There is a significant economic advantage to having a more ergonomically efficient operation,” said Jordan. “Production and safety have improved because of efficiency and ease of work.”

OSHA defines ergonomics as the fitting of a job to a person – which helps lessen muscle fatigue, increases productivity and reduces the number and severity of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD).

“Ergonomics is the science of adapting workspace, tools, equipment, and work methods for more efficient, comfortable, and error-free use,” said Jerry Dzugan, the director the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA).

There are serious consequences if those workplace adaptations are not made.

“Experienced fishermen know it’s a problem,” said Dzugan. “They spend a lot of money on doctors and have a lot of pain – they lose work, and their efficiency is reduced.

“Younger guys think it’s not a problem for them because they’re young and supple and strong. I know two fishermen not even 30 years old who have musculoskeletal problems.”

When Dzugan shows experienced fishermen how properly done ergonomic adaptation can help them avoid injuries and increase their productivity, the comment is always “I wish I had known about this a long time ago,” he said.

Dzugan and Jordan approach ergonomics from two different angles – but the final goal is the same – eliminate or reduce avoidable injuries due to inefficient and poor workplace design and setup, and increase productivity and profitability.

Jerry Dzugan’s wake-up call to the importance of ergonomics aboard a fishing vessel happened on his first trip halibut fishing in 1980 – he was hit with carpal tunnel syndrome.

“The Alaska Fishermen’s Fund reports that 40% of all claims are due to musculoskeletal injuries,” he said. “The other 60 percent are bruises, cuts, broken toes, etcetera.

“The Fishermen’s Fund data is the easiest to collect and most reliable snapshot of most reported injuries. No one tracks that information except the Fund – they have good data on what people claim. It’s hard to get injury numbers from Workmen’s Comp – they guard that information.”

One problem with obtaining an accurate picture of the number of workplace-related MSD’s is that injuries are accumulative over time. Many injuries remain under the radar until they become too painful too ignore.

“Any one single injury may not be reported to the emergency room,” said Dzugan. “It’s the big ones that get counted.”

The cumulative nature of many ergonomically related MSD injuries also makes it more difficult to determine who pays for treatment.

“Say I’ve been fishing for 20 years – my hands are getting worse. Finally, I have to go back to the last vessel or skipper and say I need to be covered – it’s difficult to determine responsibility,” said Dzugan. The fact that fishermen who are working for a percentage of the catch are not covered by Workmen’s Comp makes the situation even more difficult, he said.

Prevention of musculoskeletal injuries is the best cure, Dugan emphasizes. He carries a pocket card with 13 points for reducing MSD injuries, but recognizes that some are more difficult to follow than others when it comes to working aboard a commercial fishing boat.

AMSEA has produced information-laden Power Point presentations that graphically illustrate the consequences of not following proper ergonomic movements and procedures. It is filled with photographs of actual back and hand surgeries resulting from not following good ergonomic practices in the workplace.

Another presentation emphasizes the positive side of efficient ergonomic organization aboard commercial fishing boats – with plenty of photos of innovative fish handling mechanisms and procedures.

“Many small operators may not connect their injury claim with the work layout on the boat,” said Dzugan. “You have to do an analysis of how to reduce lifting and movement. Make your workplace fit you, don’t try to fit you to your workplace.”

There is a direct economic benefit in workplace movement analysis and modification.

“You want to limit as much as possible how many time you touch the fish,” Dzugan said. “The fewer times you touch the fish, the higher the quality when you get to market – and you increase the time you keep your gear in the water. You become more efficient and can catch more fish with less effort. You make more money and have fewer medical expenses.”

Eric Jordan’s boat, the 38 foot F/V I Gotta, is one of the examples AMSEA and Dzugan use to show how the on board workspace and work flow can be modified to achieve ergonomic efficiency.

Jordan credits his young son with calling his attention in 1989 on ways to improve the workflow and workspace on the I Gotta.

“One of the smartest things I ever did was listen to that eight year old boy on my back deck when he pointed out better ways we could handle the gear and moved fish – his observations made a lot of sense, so we started making changes,” said Jordan.

“Back in the early 90’s we pioneered using slush tanks with Nomar brailer bags,” said Jordan. “Before that we were handling the fish between 8 and 12 times. We ended up with a system where we bring the fish onboard directly into a trough, put a bungee cord on its tail, slip the knife in to let it bleed, then slide it into the ice cold slush tank.

“We only handle the fish once before it goes into the tank. The next time the fish is handled is in port when a hook is used to lift the brailer bag out of the tank.”

Jordan has continued to make modifications to his workspace and workflow that both improve the efficiency of the fish handling process and reduce the risk of MSD injuries.

“We’ve set up the deck to eliminate bending over as much as possible,” he said. “It’s arranged so that you can work between the waist and the shoulders. It’s really important to set up everything so it is safe and efficient for the body of the person doing the work.

Jordan says he is always open to new ideas and how other fishermen improve the ergonomics of their boats.

“I am always walking down the docks to see what everyone’s doing,” he says. “Always looking for ideas.”

Jordan’s son Karl is a little older now – in his 30’s – and has his own boat, but he is still an ergonomic innovator and helps his dad with improving the workspace and work flow efficiency of the I Gotta.

“We changed the way we moved fish in the holding tanks this season – in mid-season – it was Karl’s suggestion,” said Jordan. “We changed how we were using the holding tanks and saved a lot of wasted time and movement.”

Improving a boat’s workflow and ergonomic efficiency and safety can be done a step at a time, and one solution does not fit everyone, says Jordan.

“Everyone’s situation is unique,” he said. “The way to approach it is not to try to make the jump all at one time. Take it step by step,” he said.

“Attitude and common sense are what ergonomic efficiency is really all about. It’s not so much specifics as it is attitude. You should always be looking for ways to make your work flow and work space simpler, safer and more enjoyable.

“Ask yourself, what did I learn from this day, this trip, this season, that can make things more ergonomically efficient and safer? What are the incremental steps I can take – one step at a time? Some significant improvements won’t cost anything if you just think about how you do it.”

Jordan says a good place to start is with the cockpit and a hold system to minimize fish handling and improve chilling and unloading.

One example of Jordan’s approach to improved ergonomic safety and efficiency is to bring his boat in early, while there is still daylight.

“We don’t try to maximize production at the cost of increased risk,” said Jordan. “We prefer to unload in the daylight – you can see better, plus the unloading crews are fresher. If you push hard all day and unload at night, you increase your risk, even with lights.

“Safety is number one on my boat. The main thing is the improved health and reduced accidents of the skipper and crew. I’m the skipper, my job is to bring you back safe and healthy.”