For crews working on fishing boats in Alaska, danger lurks in a helpful and possibly innocent-looking device: the winch.
Winches are hauling devices on which cables are wound. On fishing vessels, they are used to lift anchors, nets and other objects. The combination of speed, force and close quarters on deck can lead to accidents involving them.
Over a 20-year period, there were 125 serious injuries to Alaska fisheries from winches, including amputations and crushed bones, according to a newly published study by experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study is published in the Journal of Agromedicine.
The study tracked winch-related traumatic injuries from 2000 to 2020 that were reported to the Alaska Fishermen’s Fund, the state-administered entity that administers fishing-related injury and illness claims. Because the tally is limited to reports filed to the fund, it is almost certainly an undercount, and possibly a significant undercount, the study said.
Of the reported 125 injuries, over 80% of the injuries occurred on vessels fishing for salmon, with events over several gear types, the study found. Topping the gear-type list were vessels using purse seines, nets that surround fish and are drawn together to pull them from the water. Reported injuries also occurred in the drift gillnet fleet and the setnet fleet, which use nets in different ways, as well as on vessels that use longline baited hooks or pots to harvest fish. About half of the injuries were caused by anchor winches, a third by deck winches and the remainder by other types of winches.
In most cases, the injuries happened when body parts were caught in or compressed by winches or the cables attached to them, the study said. Hands, wrists and arms were the body parts most frequently injured, though there were also injuries to other body parts, including skull fractures. Amputated fingers were among the most commonly reported injuries, though there was one case of an arm amputation. About half of the reported injuries were to fingers.
The study did not assess or rank the severity of reported injuries, said lead author Tristan Victoroff, a CDC epidemiologist. “However, some of the injuries we found, such as amputations … and crushing injuries, can be severe enough to end a fishing season –” or even a fishing career, Victoroff said by email.
There is some awareness in the fishing industry of winch dangers, particularly in the seine fleet, but not much data is available to show how often entanglements occur, he said. “What our study showed is that winch injuries can and do happen with some regularity in Alaska, across different winch types and fisheries,” he said.
The study includes some recommendations for improved safety.
Equipment can help, it said. For purse seine vessels, emergency stop devices, called “e-stops,” are recommended for deck winches. “Being able to stop the winch as fast as possible could make the difference in preventing a severe injury,” Victoroff said. For anchor winches, guiding rods could help prevent injuries that occur when anchors are being pulled up by their chains, the study said.
Enhanced safety training is also recommended, especially because many of those at risk on fishing vessels are relatively inexperienced. The injury statistics reflect the dangers to the young; more than half of the 125 reported traumatic injuries over the period were to workers under 30.
In general, crew members should have completed marine safety training within the past five years and be up to date on their U.S. Coast Guard-required certifications, Victoroff said. “It’s critical that crew are prepared to respond to adverse events that may occur, whether from winch injuries or other types of emergencies,” he said.
The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has a series of recommendations for fishers’ safety, he noted.
Commercial fishing in Alaska has become safer overall in recent decades. While the profession’s physical hazards are famous — “The Deadliest Catch” is about Bering Sea crab fishing and is one of the best-known reality TV shows — Alaska commercial fishing fatalities have declined since 1990, according to the CDC. There were no commercial fishing deaths in the most recent year-long period measured, from Oct. 1, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2022, making that the second fatality-free year, after 2015, according to the Coast Guard.
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