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Safety Spotlight: Vessel Disasters

Editor's note: This post was provided to us by guest author, Samantha Case, at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Vessel disasters -- sinkings, capsizings, fires, groundings -- are all too common in the fishing industry. Fortunately, survival of fishermen during a vessel disaster has increased considerably over the years, thanks in part to safety regulations, training, and an improved safety culture in the industry. However, challenging conditions continue to put vessels at risk of sinking, such as inclement weather and improper loading, which can lead to tragic consequences.

In early March, researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) participated in the Coast Guard’s formal Marine Board of Investigation for the F/V Scandies Rose sinking. The NIOSH presentation covered fatality data, a safety focus on the Bering Sea crab fishery, vessel disaster study findings, and safety recommendations. Key points from the presentation included:

  • Vessel disasters resulted in 44% of all crewmember deaths in Alaska’s fishing industry over a 20-year period, with instability as the leading cause of those events;

  • Life rafts and immersion suits save lives, highlighting the importance of skills-based safety training and drills;

  • Vessels involved in disasters are 2.4 times more likely to have an expired fishing vessel safety decal and 3 times more likely to experience prior vessel casualties (e.g., loss of power/propulsion/steering; fire; flooding); and

  • Numerous factors influence human performance and decision-making among captains and crew, from fishery management policies to inadequate sleep and fatigue.

While the NIOSH presentation did not speak to the F/V Scandies Rose sinking specifically, there are patterns that can be identified from that case and others to inform safety priorities and recommendations.

In fact, NTSB recently released their list of priorities for 2021-2022 in their Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. Included in the list was “Improve Passenger and Fishing Vessel Safety,” due to several recent high-profile vessel sinkings with loss of life and the continued high fatality rate in the fishing industry. NTSB developed recommendations regarding vessel stability, watertight integrity, safety and survival training, and lifesaving equipment. Inclusion of commercial fishing safety in their Most Wanted List brings special attention to the industry and provides a foundation from which advocacy efforts can build.

There are actionable steps that fishing vessel owners and operators can take now to protect themselves and their crew. Consider the following to better prepare for emergencies at sea:

  • PREVENT. While not all fishing vessels are required to undergo stability testing and hold a stability letter, consulting a naval architect to review the seaworthiness of your vessel and safe loading conditions is recommended. Conduct a risk assessment prior to each trip. Severe weather is a major contributor to fatal vessel sinkings, so evaluate weather forecasts carefully and avoid conditions that exceed your vessel’s capabilities. Lastly, adhere to preventative maintenance schedules and procedures to keep your vessel systems in top operating condition.

  • TRAIN. When is the last time you took a marine safety training class? NIOSH recommends an initial training for all crewmembers, and refresher training at least every five years. Training on controlling fires and flooding, abandoning ship, stability, and lifesaving equipment can improve your performance in the event of a real disaster. Work together as a crew by conducting emergency drills onboard each month to reinforce what you learned in training.

  • MAINTAIN. The lifesaving equipment you carry on your vessel must be accessible and functioning, from life rafts to VHF radios. Have you inspected your immersion suits and other lifesaving equipment lately? Ensure you have well-fitting immersion suits for all crewmembers onboard and check for holes and faulty zippers. Check the status and expiration dates of fire extinguishers, EPIRBS, life rafts, and other equipment and service as needed. To help with this, schedule a dockside exam with your local Coast Guard examiner and keep your safety decal current.

We at NIOSH wish you a successful and safe fishing season! For more information on vessel disasters or other fishing vessel safety topics, head to or contact us at


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