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OPINION: Deadly year at sea reminds us that perceptions about PFDs are outdated

August 11th, 2017 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

If you follow the news regularly, you read a lot of sad circumstances. Families die because of carbon monoxide poisoning from their stove, people perish when their car spins out of control on a winter drive, or someone gets buried in an avalanche. There is no doubt that living in Alaska has more inherent risks than more temperate locations and Alaskans, in general, take more risks than their brothers to the south.

But there are some risks we take that are unnecessary, especially when it comes to the fishing industry, which is risky enough without throwing fuel on the fire. This year is shaping up to be a deadly year for Alaska's commercial fishing industry, with 10 commercial fishing deaths so far. Most of those were from F/V Destination, which sank in February in the Bering Sea. But just last week, a 57-year-old man perished after falling overboard while fishing in Ugashik Bay. The saddest part of that report, however, are the all too familiar words, "He wasn't wearing a life jacket and reportedly could not swim."

A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health surveyed hundreds of Alaska fishermen — crabbers, trawlers, gillnetters and longliners — and found that more than half of them do not wear personal flotation devices, despite the awareness that they risk drowning if they fall overboard.

The report concluded that one of the biggest barriers to getting more fishermen to wear PFDs was the idea that the lifesaving devices were too bulky, and could even be dangerous if they caught on fishing equipment. So the federal agency set out to change their minds. They sent out six different PFD types to 200 fishermen on a variety of fishing vessels with the promise that they would wear them for a month and report back how they worked — did they chafe the skin, catch on things, restrict movement, and even, were they easy to clean?

What they found was that there were, in fact, PFDs that rose to the top in each fishery, and were rated highly by the fishermen who used them. Most liked a type of inflatable suspenders, which were minimally intrusive and comfortable to wear, fishermen reported. Gillnetters liked a set of raingear with built-in foam flotation as well.

The take-away message was that there are products out there that can work, even in an industry that requires its participants to be 100 percent able and unencumbered all the time. They cost about $100, and must be maintained and tested, but that's a pretty small price to pay for a life. Having immersion suits on board is fine and good, but they only help in an emergency situation where you have time to get them on. Most deaths at sea are the result of people falling overboard without a PFD on.

There is a lot of risk associated with life in Alaska - risks that we can't control, like not being on the top of the food chain, and certainly not being in control of the weather. But sometimes we put ourselves at risk based on outdated perceptions about what our options really are. The old PFDs of our youth that made you feel like an over-bundled child unable to even turn your head, are no longer what we are talking about here. Today, safety is also convenient.

Maybe the last hurdle we have to get over is a psychological one — the perception that taking safety precautions like wearing a PFD is a sign of weakness. I bet the friends and family of the most recent man to die after falling overboard would have a few things to say about that. The easiest route to getting past that perception might have to come from an authority — either the U.S. Coast Guard expanding the rules on who has to wear PFDs to include adults, not just children, or at the very least, skippers requiring and providing these suspenders to their crews. Then the authority figures get to be the bad guys, and everyone gets a little safer.

We've had a decade-long decline in deaths at sea among our commercial fleet — this year shows how easily that trend can be reversed, and reminds us all that safety is a deliberate choice every day. If you fish, wear a PFD. If you love a fisherman, buy him one in advance of the next holiday instead of wasting money on a pair of fuzzy slippers or equally superfluous gift. Hopefully, it will never get used. But if it does, it will be the best choice you ever made.


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