The Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety is asking New England lobstermen to help design a life jacket they would actually wear every day.
It could be a matter of life or death.
Researchers will visit Maine docks this winter to recruit fishermen to try out different kinds of personal flotation devices, or PFDs, for a month to determine which designs work best for daily use aboard a lobster boat. The lobstermen will be paid to test the life vest, and can keep it for their own use once they are done.
“This isn’t about making lobstermen wear anything, telling them what to do or regulating anything,” said principal investigator Julie Sorensen of the Northeast Center. “It’s about making PFDs comfortable enough that fishermen want to wear them.”
Statistics suggest it will be a hard sell, but well worth it.
In a study published this year, the Northeast Center found only 16 percent of lobstermen reported using a personal flotation device on the job, even though they know the risk of drowning. Falls overboard are the leading cause of workplace fatalities for New England lobstermen, accounting for 16 out of 29 on-the-job deaths from 2000 to 2015, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
None of the lobstermen who died from a fall overboard was wearing a life jacket, records show.
In July, 28-year-old Jon Popham of Machiasport, the captain of the Melinda Ann, was dragged overboard when his foot got caught in a rope while setting a 15-trap trawl line. Two sternmen were banding lobsters when they heard Popham hit the water. One dove in, cut him free and pulled him back on the boat, but he did not respond to CPR. He died about two miles off Jonesport, leaving behind a wife and 2-year-old son.
Stories about tragedies and near misses are common among fishermen. In March, when the Northeast Center was interviewing fishermen about PFDs at the Fishermen’s Forum in Rockland, a young man came to its table and looked over the vest selection. When a researcher asked him about his interest, he replied that a trawl line had dragged him overboard just a few months earlier. “I died,” he said. Another fisherman pulled him back aboard and revived him on deck.
While telling the researcher the story, his father, also a lobsterman who had been on the boat with him, came over and listened, and then started to cry.
“It’s hard for fishermen to talk about,” said research coordinator Rebecca Weil. “Our goal with this study is to keep them alive, keep them fishing.”
PROTECTING AN IMAGE AND THEMSELVES
Almost all of the 73 people interviewed by the Northeast Center for its PFD attitude survey had either had a close call on the water themselves or knew someone who had gone overboard, usually dragged into the water when a foot got tangled in the rope that connects a string of lobster pots together when dropped down into the ocean. In spite of those experiences, a disdain of life vests persists.
“We had a fellow here, must have been 15 to 20 years ago, fall overboard and we lost him,” one captain who doesn’t use a life vest told researchers. “Never found his body. Found his boots, but never found his body. That didn’t get people to wear a PFD.”
Lobstermen complained that most life vests are uncomfortable, interfere with work and actually increase the risk of getting tangled up in the trawl lines. The ones that are affordable are uncomfortable, they say, and others that run up to $250 each require inspections and regular replacement.
Many told researchers that PFDs undermine that feeling of freedom that drew them to lobstering in the first place.
While they crave their freedom, and would resist any regulation or law that would require them to wear a life vest, they aren’t reckless, researchers found. Many have renovated their boats to make it easier to survive a fall overboard, adding ladders or deck lines that will cut the engine to prevent a boat from chugging away from a fisherman in the water. Some cut holes into the deck or installed rope ladders to prevent entanglement.
Others reported that they wear a knife on their waist or their bibs, or even around an ankle, to cut themselves loose if a line drags them overboard.
But they admitted to being a superstitious community, worried that the mere act of wearing a life jacket may invite trouble, as if it might be bad luck to assume they can control their fate in such a high-risk job.
They also worry about what other fishermen would think if they started to wear a life vest. Some said there is too much “machismo” in the industry to don a life vest, that doing so would suggest that they were scared or couldn’t handle themselves on the water, and might make it harder to recruit a sternman to work on their boat. Only children and new crew wear them, they said.
But a few lobstermen do wear life vests. A husband-and-wife lobster team told researchers they started wearing them after an engine fire burned one of them and they realized how dangerous the job could be. Other lobstermen used to laugh at Bob Raymond for wearing one, but he thinks his PFD saved his life about two years ago when the skiff he was using to haul traps capsized along the rocky shore near Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth.
Jason Joyce, a lobster boat captain who fishes out of Swans Island, has gone overboard before, once about 17 years ago in weather so cold that Joyce didn’t even realize his vest had inflated. “It’s hard to get a crew motivated on the boat to wear a vest,” he said, because they chafe around the neck, but his crew has agreed to wear flotation rain gear, pants and a jacket.
Researchers at the Northeast Center hope their PFD design study, which is being conducted with Fishing Partnership Support Services of Massachusetts, will help manufacturers tailor flotation devices to the lobster industry and convince fishermen a vest can save their lives without making them miserable or poor. In two years, they will return to the docks with the most popular design for nine-month trials.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health funded a similar study in Alaska in 2008. They found that fishermen are more likely to don a vest if they are tailored to their work environments, with longliners wanting different things than a trawler. Researchers hope lobstermen will react favorably, too, even though studies show they wear vests less than other kinds of commercial fishermen.