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Beyond ‘The Perfect Storm’: Preventing Death & Injury in the Commercial Fishing Industry

NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 260-8519
June 29, 2000

The Perfect Storm, opening in movie theaters tomorrow, dramatizes journalist Sebastian Junger’s true account of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel lost at sea with all hands in the “storm of the century” in 1991. As the movie vividly illustrates, commercial fishing is an arduous and dangerous occupation. However, with planning and careful working procedures, injuries often can be prevented.

“Commercial fishermen need not be trapped in a �Perfect Storm’ to be in danger of death or serious injury on the job,” said NIOSH Director Linda Rosenstock, M.D., M.P.H. “Hazards are prevalent in this challenging industry. Fortunately, we can anticipate dangers and help keep these dedicated individuals safe and sound.”

Commercial fishermen are 30 times more likely to die on the job than the average American worker. In an instant, a commercial fisherman may be at risk of drowning if a storm or a wave capsizes his boat or sweeps him over the side, if he slips overboard from a wet or icy deck, or if he is caught in a line and pulled into the water. Avoiding harsh weather conditions, ensuring adequate vessel stability, and wearing a personal flotation device are ways to mitigate these hazards.

NIOSH recommends that the following safety factors be reviewed before a vessel goes out to sea:


  • Have emergency drills been conducted?
  • Has work been scheduled to minimize fatigue?
  • Is everyone wearing a personal flotation device while on deck?


  • Is emergency equipment available and properly maintained? Equipment includes immersion suits to provide fishermen with flotation and insulation pending rescue if they have abandoned ship, electronic beacons, life rafts, fire extinguishers, and first aid kits.
  • Are the bilge pumps in working order, and are damage control kits with plugs, wedges, and other components available?
  • Has a vessel safety inspection (such as a free U.S. Coast Guard dock-side examination) been completed?
  • Are the vessel’s scuppers clear, so that water can run off the vessel freely, and is gear secured?
  • Is the vessel being operated within its stability limits?
  • Is equipment properly guarded (such as winches or cranes), and does the crew know how to use the machinery safely?


  • Has the weather forecast been evaluated for likelihood of storms or other potentially hazardous conditions?

NIOSH and the Harvard School of Public Health, in collaboration with the Coast Guard, will hold the International Fishing Industry Safety and Health (IFISH) Conference on Oct. 23-25, 2000, in Woods Hole, Mass. The conference will be an international forum to encourage action to prevent injury in the fishing industry around the world. The meeting will highlight many successful intervention programs from which industry coalitions and others can learn and adapt to suit their own needs. Further information on the conference is available on the World Wide Web at

The Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988 requires, among other provisions, that fishing vessels carry various types of survival equipment. The Coast Guard is charged with enforcing those requirements. NIOSH has worked closely with the Coast Guard and other agencies and organizations to identify and address risk factors for death and injury in the commercial fishing industry. Extensive safety recommendations, including steps mentioned above, also were made by working groups of federal, state, and industry representatives at the Second National Fishing Industry Safety and Health Workshop. The conference was co-sponsored by NIOSH and several other agencies and organizations in 1997.

Findings and recommendations from the 1997 workshop were published by NIOSH in “Proceedings of the Second National Fishing Industry Safety and Health Workshop,” DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2000-104. Other NIOSH publications about prevention of injury and death in commercial fishing include “NIOSH Alert: Preventing Drownings of Commercial Fishermen,” DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 94-107, and “Current Intelligence Bulletin 58: Commercial Fishing Fatalities in Alaska, Risk Factors and Prevention Strategies,” DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-163.

For copies of the NIOSH publications, call the NIOSH toll-free information number, 1-800-35-NIOSH (1-800-356-4674) or visit NIOSH on the NIOSH site.