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Facts about freezer work, part 1: Why is work aboard factory trawlers and longliners so risky?

The fact that working on a fishing vessel is dangerous is well known. Even before the first time you went to sea, you probably heard stories about it.

But what does the data say? Is there research on just how dangerous commercial fishing is?

In this two-part post, we will address that question, focusing particularly on work aboard freezer-trawlers and freezer-longliners.

Research on freezer-equipped vessels

Our source is a study by researchers associated with Oregon State University and the Alaska Pacific Office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The researchers looked at work-related injuries and deaths in Alaskan waters aboard freezer-trawl (FT) and freezer-longline (FT) vessels. The study covered the years 2001 to 2012.

Differences and similarities between trawlers and longliners

To be sure, there are differences between freezer-trawlers (FTs) and freezer-longliners (FLs). FT vessels (also known as factory trawlers) catch fish by using a large net that is towed along the ocean floor. Winches bring the net to the surface when the trawl net is full. FL vessels, by contrast, get their catch by using baited hooks and bring them aboard one by one as the line of hooks is brought in.

But FTs and FLs also have a lot in common, in that they have factories and freezers on board for processing the catch into all sorts of fish products. This results in dangers that aren't present for other types of commercial fishing.

Common dangers for both FTs and FLs

The U.S. Coast Guard has identified several common factors that put workers on FT and FL vessels in the Bering Sea at high risk of injury. These include:

  • All the heavy equipment needed for processing and freezing fish
  • Exposure to hazardous gases, such as Freon or anhydrous ammonia
  • Operation in remote locations, far removed from easy access to search-and-rescue teams

In short, workers on freezer-trawlers and freezer-longliners are exposed to a lot of the same risks.

In part two of this post, we will discuss the research findings on injury rates about the two types of vessels.

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