ELLSWORTH — It’s no secret that commercial fishing can be an extremely dangerous occupation.
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Center for Maritime Safety and Health Studies, the rate of fatalities in commercial fishing is more than 30 times higher than the average industrial fatality rate and falling overboard is the most common cause of death in the New England lobster fleet.
Researchers say most of those deaths could be prevented if lobstermen would wear lifejackets while they fish, but fishermen have long resisted wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs) on the water. That may be starting to change.
Over the past year, nearly 200 commercial lobstermen in Maine and Massachusetts participated in a project sponsored by the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety aimed at promoting the use of PFDs.
During the study, researchers from the Cooperstown, N.Y., institute randomly assigned one of nine life jacket models to participating lobstermen for a one-month trial. At the end of the month, the fishermen were asked to describe their experience with the PFDs and to suggest improvements.
Those suggestions are being passed on to manufacturers with the goal of improving designs to come up with life jackets lobstermen might actually use on the water.
According to Rebecca Weil, research coordinator for the life jacket project, of the 30 deaths at sea of New England lobstermen reported between 2000 and 2016, 17 resulted from falls overboard. This year alone, at least three Maine lobstermen died after falling into the water.
While lobstermen are required to carry Coast Guard-certified life jackets on their boats, they don’t tend to wear them despite the risks, Weill said.
With that in mind, the center and cooperating researchers are trying to come up with a design for a PFD that lobstermen will actually wear while they are working.
Weill found that lobstermen voiced several reasons for their reluctance to wear life jackets.
The principal objection was that most life jackets are too bulky and interfere with the work of hauling, baiting and setting traps. In a similar vein, lobstermen complained that they felt constrained by the life jackets and that, in summer weather, they were simply too hot to wear.
There are, other factors that limit the use of life jackets, Weil found.
One is that lobstermen as a group tend to attach a social stigma to wearing life jackets, suggesting that only newcomers or incompetent fishermen would wear them. Another factor is what Weil described as “risk diffusion.”
Lobstermen readily acknowledge that their occupation is hazardous, but they cope with the risks by conscious safety efforts, such as boat and gear type, or fishing only during summer months.
Lobstermen also tended to have a “fatalistic view” of their risks, Weil said, and many of them cope with the dangers by “avoiding thoughts about drowning or speaking about it with others.”
None of those strategies is an adequate replacement for a proper life jacket that is actually worn on deck, researchers say. Most of the lobstermen who participated in the center’s study appeared to concur and kept their life jackets after the study ended.
A survey of the participants found that lobstermen favored life jackets that are comfortable, not bulky and that are not festooned with straps or buckles that can foul gear. The life jackets should also be easy to put on and keep clean. Many fishermen suggested the life jackets should be incorporated with gear they already wear.
According to the center, more than 90 percent of the lobstermen asked to take part in the study did so and more than 88 percent followed the study through to completion.
The next step will involve translating data from the study into commercially viable products that lobstermen will buy and use.