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Injuries in Alaska’s Fisheries: A Snapshot

Commercial fishing is widely regarded as one of the most hazardous occupations. With a fatality rate of 74.2 per 100,000 workers, commercial fishing in the U.S. is second only to logging when it comes to work-related death.

While we rightly focus on preventing fatalities at sea, commercial fishermen can be subject to wide variety of non-fatal injuries in the course of their careers. Many of us would like to know more about these injuries and what can be done to prevent them. Recently, we received five years of claims data from Alaska’s Fishermen’s Fund, a state operated and fisherman-funded insurance pool. In this article, we’ll dive into the numbers and see if we can’t come up with some action items a prudent fisherman can take to help reduce the risk of work-related injuries.

The Dataset

As the insurer of last resort, Fishermen’s Fund data only represent a portion of the commercial fishing injuries in a given year. However, there is a large enough dataset for one to think that it may be fairly representative of the kinds of injuries sustained by commercial fishermen pursuing their occupation.

We received claims data for the years 2015 to 2019. Claims were broken out by gear group, fishing district, injury type, and body part injured and represented 1,862 claims. The claims data was quite granular and for this reason, we grouped similar injuries, in order to make the data more manageable. After all that, we came up with the following takeaways.

Claims by Fishery

Of the fifteen different fisheries represented in the claims data, just three fisheries accounted for more than 60% of the injury claims. The drift gillnet fishery accounted for 30% of all injury claims and the purse seine fishery accounted for another 20%. The longline fishery accounted for 13% of all claims.

Claims by Type of Injury

Five types of injuries accounted for more than 80% of the injuries claimed. Strains, sprains, and tears (including hernias) made up 38% of all claims, followed by lacerations at 12%. Fractures and dislocations accounted for 11% of claims, as did infections at 11%. Contusions, including crushing injuries, made up another 10% claims.

Claims by Injured Body Part

We grouped claims by injured body part into six categories. Injuries to the upper extremities, including the shoulder, arm, wrist, hand, and fingers were the most common at 40% of all claims. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the work in commercial fishing, injuries to the fingers and hands made up 55% of the claims within this group.

Injuries to the lower extremities were the next most common group of claims at 19% of all claims. Among this group, injuries to the knees were most common, at 33%.

Back injuries made up 17% of all claims with 77% of back injury claims for injuries to the lower back. Head and neck injury claims accounted for 12% of claims and 36% of those claims were for injuries to the eyes.

Injuries to the torso, made up 10% of all claims. Of these claims, injuries to the chest made up 30% of all claims, followed by damage to internal organs and soft tissue at 25%, and injuries to the abdomen and groin at 19%. Injuries to multiple body parts made up just 2% of all claims.

Injury Prevention

There are so many ways to get injured on fishing boat we can’t hope to catalog them all here. Suffice it to say, that most injuries are preventable, through proper maintenance of the vessel and gear, engineering fixes like emergency stops and guards, crew training, proper attention to the task at hand, and good seamanship.

However, while there are seemingly countless ways to get injured while while commercial fishing, the biggest group of injuries by type are strains, sprains, and tears. These types of musculoskeletal injuries account for nearly 40% of all injury claims in the dataset. They mostly occur as a result of working too hard, lifting something that’s too heavy, or performing a repetitive task for too long.

These types of injuries can also be very preventable, with the right tools, workstation, rotation of duties, and physical conditioning. In fact, AMSEA has developed a safety curriculum for preventing these injuries and we have incorporated it into our Mariner’s First Aid course. We have also developed a pocket guide, Strains, Sprains, and Pains: Ergonomic Injury Prevention for Commercial Fishermen. Download if for free at

The pocket guide contains practical advice on tool selection, workstation design, and lifting techniques to prevent injury to yourself and your crew. In addition, there are instructions and illustrations demonstrating a variety of conditioning exercises and stretches to use prior to and throughout the fishing season to help keep your body fit for work. It’s the kind of information that many fishermen have told us they wish they had when they were younger.

We hope this information will be useful as you consider injury prevention in your fisheries and on your boat. Thank you to the Alaska Fishermen’s fund for providing AMSEA with this data.


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