NIOSH Takes Alaska Lessons to East Coast Fishermen

When NIOSH started investigating injuries to Alaskan seiners a few years ago, they found a common theme. Researchers were able to trace countless instances of crushing, amputation, and drowning back to getting tangled up in the net.

“They get caught up and wrapped. And once they get wrapped, they can’t reach the controls to shut down the winch,” says Chelsea Woodward. Woodward is one of four researchers on NIOSH’s commercial fishing safety team. He serves as an engineer, and it was his job to design a simple tool based on NIOSH’s seiner research.

He came up with a design for an emergency kill switch that would quickly stop the net from winding up. The fishermen who tested the kill switch on their seine boats liked it — and that kill switch is now sold commercially, in a kit.

Woodward says Alaska fishermen are ideal research subjects. They’re willing to collaborate, and provide input on NIOSH’s research and gear designs.

“This is a good place because of the understanding that commercial fishermen have with NIOSH,” he says. “There’s a better understanding that NIOSH is not regulatory. We have their best interests in mind.”

But Woodward says fishermen outside Alaska don’t always understand that NIOSH is a research agency — it doesn’t deal in law enforcement, and it’s totally separate from OSHA, which can hand out fines for safety violations.

That’s just one reason why NIOSH may face an uphill battle, as it embarks on an eastbound safety campaign.

NIOSH wants to start sharing its research on commercial fishing safety in Alaska with fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Eventually, Woodward says he’d like to see his safety tools on their vessels, too.

“We can take the solutions that have been developed out in Alaska and see if they’re a good fit for the East Coast scallopers or draggers,” he says.

But the commercial fishing safety team is already stretched thin. Bob Kehoe is the executive director of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association in Seattle. Kehoe worked with NIOSH researchers a few years ago, when he invited them to give a presentation at one of his conferences.

“That is a struggle for them,” Kehoe says. “You know, they try to do with a limited budget, to go out and travel and get to know the fishermen themselves, but that takes time, and you can only reach so many people.”

NIOSH is committed to its Alaska fishing research, and they’ll keep that up even as they start expanding to the Gulf and East coasts this fall. They may hire a few temporary assistants to help out, but Kehoe is right: the NIOSH team’s time is at a premium. So is money.

NIOSH’s budget has been threatened many times over the years. It’s happening again: The White House has released a proposed 2013 budget that cuts all money for NIOSH research on commercial fishing, forestry, and agriculture.

Woodward says his agency is taking this threat seriously. But for now, the federal budget still isn’t finalized. Until NIOSH knows exactly how much money they have to work with, they’re pushing forward.

“We’ll work as hard and as diligently as we can to continue,” he says. “Because good things are coming from it, we have to have the faith that the powers that be will recognize that, and the rest will fall into place.”

And maybe, if they can show fishermen and the federal government that there’s still more work to be done, these researchers will make it through another year.

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