Commercial fishing is the most dangerous industry in which to work in the U.S. Workers keep at it for the love of being out on the water and because it is a lucrative career, in spite of the risks. Both the fishermen on the boats and the workers loading and unloading from the docks face challenges doing this work. Among the most dangerous of all positions in commercial fishing is that of the ground fisherman.
These fishermen catch animals that live on the bottom of rivers, lakes, and the ocean, which makes the job of fishing even more challenging. Special equipment must be used to catch and collect rockfish, flatfish, skates, cod, halibut, flounder, scallops, and other types of ground fish. Working with these commercial fishermen are the lumpers who unload and transport the catches to storage. They also face risks and dangers on the job. All types of workers involved in commercial fishing are protected by maritime laws, which guarantee compensation for injuries or fatalities on the job.
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The Dangerous Job of Ground Fishing
Year after year, commercial fishing is considered to be the most dangerous job in the country. This is based solely on the statistics that count the numbers of injuries and deaths that occur on the job. Many believe that crab fishing in Alaska is the most dangerous of all these fishing jobs, but the real answer is ground fishing. Ground fishermen working in the Atlantic coast of New England see the most deaths and injuries than any other part of the industry.
The statistics come from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which finds that the industry saw 600 deaths per 100,000 workers from 2000 to 2009. The rate was a little lower for scallop fishermen, at 425 deaths per 100,000 workers for the same time period. The rate for Alaskan crab fisherman was 260 during that decade.
What Makes the Job So Dangerous?
There are many factors of the job of ground fishing that makes it so hazardous. As with any type of commercial fishermen, these workers do their jobs in rough conditions. They face dangerous weather, rough waters, and long, tiring work days. Weather, big swells, and simple fatigue can combine to cause accidents, injuries and deaths. The most common type of accidents for ground fishing are capsizing or sinking fishing boats.
Fishing boats are not always stable in the kinds of rough ocean waters that they face. Boats built before 1991 or measuring less than 79 feet in length do not have to be inspected for stability. Unfortunately, it is the boats that are smaller than 79 feet that sink most often and should be inspected. Only ten percent of the fishing fleet in Maine, for instance, is inspected for stability or safety gear.
Another danger specific to the job of ground fishing is the equipment used. A common cause of death in the industry is falling overboard, and this is often caused by getting tangled in or snagged by the fishing lines. A fall overboard in the ocean is very dangerous and workers who fall may die from drowning or hypothermia from the cold waters. Safety and training may also be big contributors to the dangers of the job. Many workers in the industry have been improperly trained, or not trained at all, in the use of safety gear and in safety procedures. Many boats lack appropriate safety equipment.
The Most Common Ground Fishing Accidents
According to statistics gathered by NIOSH, the most common accidents that occur in commercial fishing and specifically ground fishing are vessel disasters, onboard injuries, and falls overboard. Vessel disasters accounted for more than half of fishing deaths and include capsizing, collisions, and sinking. Safety training for such incidents as well as proper safety equipment like working life vests and life rafts could prevent fatalities.
Falls overboard caused the second largest number of deaths in the industry, and again, safety precautions could prevent many of the resulting deaths. None of the workers who fell overboard and drowned were wearing personal flotation devices. Furthermore, more than half of these falls occurred when there were no witnesses. A man overboard alarm would prevent these situations.
Finally, deck injuries were the third leading cause of fatalities aboard fishing boats. These accidents caused more non-fatal injuries than any other type of incident. Wet and slippery decks and pitching boats in rough weather cause slip and falls. Lines and cables used in winches and haulers also cause accidents, falls overboard, and amputations.
Fishermen working aboard boats face the greatest dangers in the commercial ground fishing industries, but support staff also work in dangerous conditions. Lumpers run the catch from fishing boats to storage areas. They handle large and heavy loads of cargo, which can lead to accidents with falling loads, back injuries, and repetitive stress injuries. Lumpers are also at risk of falling into the water and drowning or suffering hypothermia, getting snagged in fishing lines, being hit by moving equipment, or being trapped between a boat and the dock. Any of these accidents can cause serious injuries and may even be fatal.
Legal Assistance and Compensation
If you work as a ground fisherman, you may qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act, which means you can get compensation for injuries in the case of negligence. Even if negligence can’t be proven, you are still entitled to some form of compensation for medical expenses and lost wages. If you work as a lumper you may not qualify as a seaman, but you may qualify for benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. This is a federal workers’ compensation program that guarantees you will receive the money you deserve if you are injured on the job.
If you have lost a loved one to this dangerous industry and you were dependent on that worker, you too are covered by federal maritime laws. Whether you or a loved one has suffered on the job in the fishing industry, you can benefit from the guidance and experience of a professional maritime lawyer to help you determine your rights and make your claims.