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Federal engineers working on making winches safer

Five years ago, a 15-year-old died after getting caught in a winch on a shrimp vessel off the coast of Mississippi. Since then, engineers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have been looking at ways to prevent winch injuries, which are particularly common on shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 35 fishermen in the Southern shrimp fleet were injured by winches between 2000 and 2011, and eight of these injuries were fatal. Many of these injuries happened because a deckhand's loose clothing, such as a sleeve or a glove, became entangled in the winch.

After the tragic death of a very young deckhand on a shrimp boat, the U.S. Coast Guard asked NIOSH to look into ways to make winches safer in general. NIOSH engineers are currently testing winch guards designed to fit over the three most common types of winches used in the shrimp fleet.

While winches typically have electric controls that are easy for deckhands to reach while using the equipment normally, the controls can be hard - if not impossible - to access by someone whosse clothing is caught in the machinery.

The new devices should make it easier for a deckhand to stop power to the winch in case of an emergency. The NIOSH engineers are working on prototypes that would allow deckhands to shut off power to the winch if they become entangled in it.

Tests of the devices are currently underway, and the engineers will use the results to fine-tune the prototype. Hopefully, the new devices will eventually make the Southern shrimp fleet - and other fleets - safer, by preventing one of the most common causes of onboard injuries.

In the meantime, there are precautions deckhands can take to keep themselves safe while working around wenches. The CDC recommends deckhands avoid baggy clothing, never work alone on deck and make sure they are trained in emergency procedures.

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