A Participatory Approach to Building a Systems-Based Understanding of the Vulnerability of Commercial Fishermen to Workplace Hazards
Funding:  Northeaster Center for Agricultural and Occupational Health
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Project Summary


Read more about the theoretical background of this project.

The research question we propose to investigate is: Is there an effective and efficient way to draw on local knowledge to help fishermen understand their vulnerability to occupational hazards and the actions they can take to reduce those vulnerabilities?
To answer this research question, we propose to conduct deliberation-based participatory vulnerability assessment with two groups of fishermen in the midcoast region of Maine.  We will implement our process in South Thomaston, Maine with a group of shrimp fishermen and another group of groundfishermen. In each application our objectives are to:
1.     Apply a dialogue-based risk characterization process called the VCAPS process (described below) with a group of fishermen currently engaged in fishing and managing risks to occupational health and safety.
2.     Demonstrate the feasibility and usefulness of the VCAPS process as a planning and decision-making tool for fishermen to manage these risks.
3.     Assess the factors that contribute to individual and group learning through the use of decision support tools and dialogue-based participatory processes for hazard and vulnerability assessment.
Commercial marine fishing is dangerous work.  In the USA in 2010, fishing had the highest work injury fatality rate of any category of work at 116 per 100,000 (USBLS 2010). Regionally, Alaska is the most dangerous region, with the Northeast ranking second (CDC 2010).  In their study released in 2008, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) reported that, from 1992 through 2007, there were 1,903 lost vessels and 934 fatalities in the fishing industry in the United States.  This is an average of 119 lost vessels and 58 fatalities per year (USCG 2008).
Injuries include cuts, puncture wounds (e.g., from hooks) and broken bones.  Fishermen may also experience drowning, exposure, concussions, musculoskeletal disorders (including tendonitis), respiratory problems (e.g., asthma), skin diseases, and hearing loss. Dangers arise, in large part, because of the nature of commercial fishing, as this ILO report said:
Fishing takes place in the often-hostile marine environment. Fishing vessels, except in very calm weather, are constantly in motion. When the weather is particularly rough, the motion may be extreme and unpredictable. On deck, fishermen are exposed to the weather and the sea, fishing gear and other equipment and usually to the catch itself. On or below deck they may face dangers associated with processing and, even when not working, they are still subject to vessel motion. There is always the possibility of fire, sinking and other traditional maritime dangers. Fog carries the risk of collision or grounding. (ILO 2000).
The individual behavior of fishermen does certainly play a role in the manifestation of accidents.  For instance, a report on the fishing industry in Maine this past summer found that 40% of vessels were in noncompliance with safety standards and most fishermen were not safety trained (Davis and Backus 2011).  Davis and Backus also reported that fishermen underrate their occupational risk and tend to use a risk calculus that ends up exposing them to greater harms. Facts such as these can lead to “human error” being cited as the fundamental cause of accidents when they do occur.  But this focus on individual behavior, while appropriate, may distract us from important dimensions of the problem that are vital to a complete understanding of the anatomy of occupational hazards.
A more productive approach to understanding vulnerability and safety begins with the idea that any attempt to eliminate and control contributory causes to accidents must consider an activity as part of a larger “socio-technical-environmental” system. Toward this end, it is instructive to note that the Coast Guard (1999) observed that multiple factors contribute to accidents, injuries, and fatalities while fishing:
·      individual attitudes, skills, knowledge, and behaviors,
·      group dynamics and communication,
·      individual and group interactions with technologies,
·      economic, political, and social pressures, and
·      regulatory and fisheries management rules.
For example, organizational, social, equipment, and environmental characteristics may have significant influences on safety in commercial marine fishing activities because they influence how the activity is done (ILO 2000, Murray and Dolomont 1994, 1995, Danish Maritime Authority 2001, NRC 1991, US Coast Guard 1999, Georgianna and Shrader 2005, Woodley 2000, Clampa et al. 2000).  Appropriate safety gear (a form of equipment) may not be worn because it is uncomfortable and restricts movement. Regulatory and economic pressures may influence patterns of fishing, fishermen’s incentives to cut short trips during inclement weather, and the readiness of search and rescue personnel.  Economic pressures may also contribute to delays in necessary maintenance and the number of crew hired.  Workloads may be directly related to fishing regimes.  Political pressures can affect budgetary allocations for safety-related trainings and choices of fishery management regimes (e.g., days at sea vs. individual quotas).
Davis and Backus recognize that occupational risk is situated in a larger system and they conclude that, “Safety training and risk communication efforts should be designed with an understanding of the fishermen’s attitudes towards risk” (p. 16).  We concur that a systems approach to understanding hazards can better inform hazard mitigation planning, such as the design of programs to help reduce occupational risk to fishers.  The approach we are proposing here was originally conceived with funding from NMFS for the purpose of doing rapid impact assessment of fisheries communities to regulatory change, but has never been applied to the problem of managing occupational safety of the fishing industry.  However, we are familiar with the fishing industry.  We recently completed a research project (funded by NMFS) to explore the risk behaviors associated with occupational safety of fishers in New England (citation omitted for blind review).  Table 1 summarizes a number of the things we learned, but organizes this knowledge under the three main concepts of vulnerability: exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive action.
Table 1. Factors identified by fisheries stakeholders in a Massachusetts community that affect safety.


Factors that affect exposure to hazards

Factors that affect sensitivity

Factors that affect coping ability

Vessels, gear, and other technol-ogies

·      Vessel type
·      Gear type

·         Age of vessel
·         Type of safety equipment
·         Changes in gear or workload
·         Requirements for specialized gear

·         Presence of safety equipment
·         Improve ability to meet safety regulations

Captains and Crew: demographic characteristics and individual decision making and behaviors

·         Amount of time working on the boat
·         Unskilled crew and reduced crew size
·         Lack of English proficiency limiting options
·         Poor decisions when weather bad
·         Pressure from crew to remain offshore to increase catch

·         Number of crew members
·         Skill level of crew
·         Language barriers
·         Age (health and strength) of fishermen
·         Crew familiarity as co-workers
·         Fatigue and workload increase from reductions in crew size or skills

·         Skills (or lack thereof) among crew and captain
·         Stable crew with familiarity working together (positive effect)
·         Language barriers (negative effect)
·         Alcohol and drugs (negative effect)

Institutional factors and manage-ment regimes

·         Elimination of safe harbor option
·         Regulations that promote derby fishing

·         Constraints on flexibility of where to fish
·         Mistakes during agency enforcement of regulations
·         Derby fishing incentives
·         Disincentives for young to join fishery

·         Permission for “acceptable” safe harbor option (positive effect)
·         Safety and rescue trainings (positive effect)
·         Union health insurance
·         Regulation of vessels and safety inspections

Socio-economic characteristics:  socio-cultural factors and economic factors

·         Cultural incentives to join fishery
·         Cultural norms that increase risk-taking
·         Incentives to work in adverse weather due to decreased income

·         Family stress
·         Increasing costs of fuel, insurance, delay repairs etc.
·         Fewer savings (“safety net”) because income decreasing
·         Lack of safety equipment because of costs

·         Family provided insurance (e.g., from spouse) (positive effect), community cohesiveness (positive effect)
·         Inadequate insurance to cope with accident-related costs (negative effect)
·         Ability to get loans from relatives (positive effect)

This project is innovative because it provides a structured approach to elicit and organize (in a systems framework) the local knowledge of fishermen about their vulnerability to occupational injury or death.  The proposed project is responsive to two NEC priorities:  fishing safety and community-based participatory research.
Improving safety in fishing will depend on better understandings of the ways that multiple contributing factors interact and the ways that fishermen respond to them.  Improvements will also come from understanding these issues from the perspective of the fishermen themselves. Over-generalization about problems and solutions can have negative consequences, as the ILO noted: “Risks vary with each type of fishing operation, area of operation, vessel size, equipment carried and the job of each fisherman…Over-simplification of the industry, which may lead to inappropriate regulation and thus resentment and loss of the cooperation of the fishermen concerned, can itself be a danger” (ILO 2000).


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