MMWR Puts Spotlight on Fishing, Oil and Gas Fatalities

Just days before Workers’ Memorial Day, the April 25 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) revealed that commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, and that three Pacific Coast states recorded fatality rates twice as high as the industry average.

In the report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studied commercial fishing fatalities in California, Oregon and Washington state from 2000 to 2006. A total of 58 fatalities were reported in those states during that time, including 21 in Oregon, 20 in California and 17 in Washington.

“Commercial fishing has long been associated with high fatality rates; however, this report is the first to identify the most hazardous Pacific Coast fisheries outside of Alaska,” the report read.

According to the report, the industry has an annual fatality rate of 115 deaths per 100,000 fishermen, compared to the average 4 deaths per 100,000 for all U.S. workers. The three states in the study had a combined average fatality rate of 238 deaths per 100,000 commercial fishermen – roughly double the national fishing fatality rate.

Fatal Conditions

Of the 58 total fatalities, 43 occurred from the capsizing or sinking of fishing vessels. Weather conditions contributed to 34 of those fatalities, with other contributing factors including large waves, flooding and vessel instability. The inability for workers to enter functional life rafts also played a role – life rafts either malfunctioned, were not available or the vessel was too small to accommodate a raft.

Eleven workers died as a result of falling overboard. These victims were not wearing life vests, and contributing factors included working alone, slipping or tripping, gear entanglement, a wet or slippery deck and alcohol/drug use. Four additional fatalities occurred following deck or diving injuries.

“Of particular concern in this study are the results showing a lack of use of life rafts and immersion suits,” the report read. In one case, a worker who drowned wore the suit incorrectly, while another wore the suit properly but struck his head on rocks. A third worker wore the suit correctly but still drowned, with no apparent head trauma.

Highest Fatality Rate: Northwest Dungeness

The report determined that the Northwest Dungeness crab fishery held the highest fatality rate of any fishery located off the coasts of those three states, and also surpassed the fatality rate of Alaska’s Bering Sea crab fishery, which previously was described as the most dangerous.

During 2000-2006, Northwest Dungeness had 17 fatalities, while Bering Sea had 11 deaths. Bering Sea’s rate of 305 deaths per 100,00 workers represents a 60 percent decrease from its 1990 rate of 768.

“Safety improvements in the Alaska commercial fishing industry during the 1990s did not occur because of a single intervention. Several interventions were implemented, including requirements for emergency gear, development of hands-on safety training, and tailored safety interventions addressing specific hazards for particular fishing fleets.” the report read.

To bolster safety in these Pacific Coast states, MMWR listed recommendations that included tailoring safety interventions to specific groups of vessels, with a special emphasis on the Northwest Dungeness crab fleet. Targeted preseason safety inspections and safety and stability training also should be implemented.

“Other areas of emphasis should include improved weather reporting, training in the deployment and use of life rafts, and increased training in the use of immersion suits and personal flotation devices,” the report read.

MMWR drew on data CDC collected from U.S. Coast Guard reports, local law enforcement agencies, death certificates, state-based occupational fatality surveillance programs, local media and other sources within the three states.

Oil, Gas Extraction Fatalities

The report also highlighted fatalities in the growing industry of oil and gas extraction. CDC examined this industry’s fatality data from the period of 2003-2006 after the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) noted a 15 percent rise in fatalities from 2003 (85 fatalities) to 2004 (98 fatalities).

During 2003-2006, 404 oil and gas extraction workers died on the job. This amounts to an annual fatality rate of 30.5 per 100,000 workers, which is about seven times the rate for all workers.

A total of 110 of the oil and gas extraction fatalities occurred in highway crashes, with three-fourths of the deaths involving light trucks or semi-tractor trailers. Not wearing seatbelts or being ejected upon impact were additional contributing factors.

Several factors in oil and gas extraction may create an increased risk for highway crashes: the vehicles are exempt from certain Department of Transportation hours-of-service regulations; drivers often travel on rural highways, which are more likely to lack firm shoulders, rumble strips or pavement; and workers often complete 8-to-10-hour shifts and work 7-14 days in a row.

“Employers should work with existing industry groups and federal, state, and local government agencies to promote seatbelt use,” the report read. “In addition, researchers and public health officials should collaborate with industry groups to establish engineering and process controls that remove workers from potentially dangerous machinery while drilling and servicing oil and gas wells.”

Other events that lead to deaths included being struck by equipment or machinery, explosions, falls and fires. Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Wyoming and New Mexico had the highest number of occupational fatalities within the industry.

“Current petroleum prices suggest that increased oil and gas extraction activity will continue,” the report read. “Therefore, unless changes are made to increase worker safety, the high fatality rates described in this report are likely to continue.”

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