Seven Things You Can Do to Prevent Man Overboard Fatalities


Falls overboard are the second most frequent cause of fatalities in the commercial fishing industry, right after sinking vessels. We're going to get to that list of seven things in a moment. But first, here's a some facts you need to know.

From 2000 to 2016, 204 commercial fishermen died from unintentional falls overboard. That’s according to a report published this past April by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The study looked at each incident in order to find any patterns to these tragedies. A few things jump out.

  • The majority of the falls were not witnessed (121; 59.3%).

  • 108 of the victims of unwitnessed falls were never recovered (89.3%).

  • Among the 83 victims of witnessed falls, 56 rescue attempts were made, but only 22 victims were recovered.

  • Fatalities occurred most frequently on the East Coast (62; 30.4%), followed by the Gulf of Mexico (60; 29.4%), Alaska (51; 25%), West Coast (26; 12.8%), and Hawaii (5; 2.4%).

  • The highest number of fatal falls overboard occurred in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery (34; 16.7%), followed by East Coast lobster (18; 8.8%), Alaska salmon drift gillnet (16; 7.8%), and East Coast scallop fishery (10; 4.9%).

It’s not just the greenhorns falling overboard. The 94 victims for which information was available had a median of 16 years of commercial fishing experience. Only nine of the victims were confirmed to have taken formal marine safety training (4.4%).

Among the 73% of cases where the cause of the fall was known, the leading cause was loss of balance (32.2%), followed by tripping or slipping (47; 31.5%), and gear entanglement (31; 20.8%). Contributing factors included working alone (99; 48.5%), alcohol and drug use (37; 19.1%), and bad weather (24; 11.8%)

Then there’s this fact. Not one of these fishermen that died was wearing a personal flotation device (PFD).

Well, that’s a bunch of gloomy statistics, so what’s the take away? What are the things you can do to protect your crew’s lives, not to mention your own? Here’s that list of seven things you can do:

  • First and foremost, wear a PFD every time you are on deck. It seemed to work pretty well for the two deckhands that were swept overboard from the F/V Arctic Wind, last January. Watch the video to hear from a couple more guys with something to say about wearing PFDs on deck. Different PFDs work better for different fisheries. You can learn about the best PFDs for your fishery at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/fishing/pfds.html.

  • Boats pitch and roll at sea. If possible, add lifelines, raise bulwarks, or otherwise enclose your crew’s workspace.

  • Keep your decks clear of ice, hydraulic oil, loose lines, and other trip hazards.

  • Stay sober and ensure crew that your crew does, too.

  • Clearly, working alone on deck is a big risk factor, but sometimes it may be unavoidable. How about equipping your crew with man-overboard alarms? There are a variety of systems and technologies available. Some systems will integrate with your boat’s AIS, if so equipped. Others integrate with your boat’s plotter, providing coordinates and course headings to your overboard crew. Some systems are standalone and simply sound an audible alarm. At least one man overboard alarm system integrates with a smartphone or tablet, providing a low cost alarm system.

  • Rig up some recovery gear. The fact that only 22 out of 56 recovery efforts were successful underscores the difficulties of retrieving someone from the water. Commercially produced man overboard recovery gear is available at reasonable cost. Lifesling and Marsars are two popular brands. Combined with lifting gear and a bit of practice, you and your crew will be in a much better position to recover an overboard crew mate.

  • Get marine safety training. Documented commercial fishing boats operating in federal waters are required to conduct monthly drills of emergency procedures (46 CFR 28.270). If you attend an AMSEA Fishing Vessel Drill Conductor class, you will learn how to respond effectively to a man overboard emergency on your boat. You’ll also learn how to train your crew to respond, how to conduct a man overboard drill, and meet the regulatory requirements. Look for a Drill Conductor class in our Course Listings or sign up on our Course Waiting List to be notified of upcoming courses in your area. Marine safety training is proven to save lives.

So there you have it, seven things you can do to reduce the odds of you or your crew going over the side or to improve the odds of a successful man overboard recovery in case you do. Click the link to read the report, Fatal Falls Overboard in Commercial Fishing – United States, 2000-2016 and learn more about falls overboard at cdc.gov/niosh/topics/fishing/fallsoverboard.html.


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