Crab still the deadliest catch: State workplace death data shows fewer fatalities

Posted: Monday, May 09, 2011

Reality television has made clear Alaska will always be home to some of the world's most dangerous jobs, but the state was a much safer place to work in 2009.

For the most recent data available, workplace fatalities in Alaska declined by 48 percent in 2009 to 17 deaths, from 33 in 2008.

More than half the fatalities in 2009, nine, were caused by transportation incidents: four involved contact with objects and three were caused by entanglement with running equipment.

The state Department of Labor released the data April 28 to mark National Workers' Memorial Day.

"Through the focused, coordinated and sustained efforts of state and federal agencies, employers and all Alaska workers, our goal of zero lives lost can become a reality," said DOL Commissioner Click Bishop.

Nationally, transportation incidents account for the most workplace fatalities and highway incidents accounted for 20 percent of all deaths.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, which tracks workplace fatalities, reported seven of the Alaska deaths were in the "farming, fishing and forestry" occupations.

Fishing has long been the most dangerous job in Alaska, and it is by far the most dangerous job in the United States. The BLS fatal injury rate nationally for the fishing industry is 200 deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, or FTEs.

The next-most dangerous industry is logging, with a fatality rate of 61.8 per 100,000.

According to data from 2000 to 2009 compiled by BLS and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, there were 111 commercial fishing deaths in Alaska accounting for 29 percent of all state workplace fatalities.

The most recent decade, however, was nearly half of the 202 commercial fishing deaths from 1990 to 1999.

"Progress has been made, but fatality rates continue to be high," said Jennifer Lincoln of the NIOSH Alaska office. "Further safety interventions are needed to combat the unique high-risk occupational hazards found in Alaska."

Based on fatality rate, the Bering Sea crab fishery is still the most dangerous job in Alaska. With 12 deaths between 2000 and 2009, the fatality rate for Bering Sea crabbers is 260 per 100,000, about 30 percent greater than the national average for the fishing industry.

By total deaths, the Alaska salmon fishery had the most with 39. However, with more than eight times as many FTE jobs as crab, the fatality rate for Alaska salmon fishers was 115 per 100,000 at nearly half the national average.

There were 26 deaths in the cod fishery (120 per 100,000), 21 in the sole fishery and 10 in the halibut fishery.

Even though crabbing is still the most dangerous job, it is far safer than it was in the 1990s, when 80 crewmen lost their lives over 10 years.

Beginning in 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard addressed the problem with overloaded crab vessels leading to capsizing incidents with mandatory dockside inspections. Vessels were given limits on how many pots could be carried based on a vessel stability report. Since the inspections began, there has been only one capsizing incident, the F/V Big Valley in 2005 that led to the death of five crewmen.

In the 1990s, 50 of the 80 crew deaths were caused by 12 capsizing incidents.

The Big Valley left Dutch Harbor in January 2005 without undergoing inspection, and the subsequent investigation into the sinking showed the vessel, which had been twice previously instructed to remove pots from the deck, was "grossly overloaded" when it capsized.

The Big Valley, which was permitted to carry 31 pots weighing 600 pounds each, was carrying 55 pots weighing 780 pounds each.

There have been seven non-vessel disaster fatalities in the Bering Sea crab fishery since the mandatory dockside inspections began -- three before 2005 and four since the fishery was rationalized in the 2005-06 crab seasons, usually man overboard incidents.

Rationalizing the fishery by allocating harvest quota ended the "derby" style race for fish and has significantly slowed the pace of fishing and extended the seasons.

According to a NIOSH report released in Spring 2009, U.S. Coast Guard cutter time has increased from 10 days to 135 days annually based on the longer crab seasons.

The forward deployed Coast Guard unit in St. Paul had a busy winter in the Bering Sea in 2011. According to the USCG, there were eight medevac operations and 11 search and rescue operations from Jan. 1 to April 1.

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