From 2000 to 2016, 204 U.S. fishermen died after falling overboard, 18 of them New England lobstermen. None of the dead was wearing a life jacket.

Lobstermen, from left, Salomon Tamup, Humberto Cach, Chris Chase and Josue Ruiz try life jackets in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Lifejackets for Lobstermen

In fact, a recent study found that only 16 percent of lobstermen wear a personal flotation device, even though they are well aware of the risks of their work.

Why? That’s just the question the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety set out to answer a few years ago. Through research and surveys, its Lifejackets for Lobstermen program identified a number of objections held by lobstermen – and the group has spent the last couple of years knocking them down.

Starting about three years ago, the group began interviewing lobstermen about their views on personal flotation devices. They heard that life jackets were uncomfortable, that they got in the way while working on a boat and that they were expensive.

It’s not that lobstermen were opposed to safety measures; many have made other changes to their outfit, lines and boat to make going overboard less likely. It’s just that bulky life jackets were thought of as too restricting, and possibly prone to the kinds of entanglement that can pull someone into the water.

So the group then recruited lobstermen to test a number of life jacket styles to see what they preferred. Now, in the name of occupational safety, Lifejackets for Lobstermen is visiting lobstermen up and down the coast offering 11 different styles, ranging in price from $19 to $120, the Portland Press Herald reported this week. The group will make its final stops along the Maine coast over the next month.

A similar process was undertaken in Alaska, where the fishing industry recently went a year without a fatality for the first time. During the 1980s, an average of 31 Alaska fishermen died each year. That decline precipitously in the 1990s, thanks mostly to a number of significant safety policy and procedural changes within the industry, but also to the more widespread use of flotation devices.

Let’s hope that happens here as well. The lobster industry accounts for the highest number of occupational fisheries deaths on the East Coast.

But it’s also an industry made up of thousands of fiercely independent small businesses, operated by folks for whom the freedom of taking a boat out each day is a big part of why they fish. Researchers have also identified in the male-dominated fishery a culture of machismo, along with a little superstition, that stop some from putting on a life jacket.

Life jackets can be made more comfortable and less costly. But changing the culture is more tricky. Anecdotal evidence shows things may be starting to shift, though slowly. Let’s hope that continues; otherwise more official changes may be necessary.

The Coast Guard requires most maritime professionals to wear life jackets, but not fishermen, who only must have flotation devices in their boat, not on their person.

If the culture surrounding life jackets doesn’t change, then the law might have to.

 


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