Researchers at Oregon State University recently published a study showing that the use of a metal bar placed at a certain height on a commercial fishing vessel can significantly reduce repetitive motion injuries sustained by deckhands during the Dungeness crabbing season. It’s one example of how the Fishermen Led Injury Prevention Program, which was launched at OSU nearly a decade ago, is helping fishermen reduce injuries in an industry where hazards abound, from falls on a slippery deck to vessel disasters on the high seas.
After hearing from fishermen that first aid training needs to be relevant for their industry, FLIPP partnered with Oregon Sea Grant to develop a first aid training course that is being taught to fishing crews in Oregon, and has now expanded to training sessions in Washington and California. Laurel Kincl is an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at Oregon State University, and Poggy Lapham is a commercial fisherman based in Newport. They join us to talk about efforts to make fisheries in Oregon and the West Coast safer through the work of FLIPP.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We end today with a very specific kind of workplace safety effort. The Fisherman Led Injury Prevention Program, or FLIPP, was launched at OSU almost a decade ago. The idea is to help fishermen reduce injuries in an industry that has all kinds of hazards, from repetitive stress to falls on slippery decks, to capsizing in major storms. Laurel Kincl is an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at Oregon State University and one of the researchers behind this FLIPP program. Poggy Lapham is a commercial fisherman based in Newport who’s taken part in the group’s work. They both join me now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Laurel Kincl: Thank you.
Poggy Lapham: Thank you for having us.
Miller: Poggy, first. Shows like “Deadliest Catch,” they base a lot of drama on the dangers that commercial fishermen have to deal with. Can you help us sort out the reality from the hyperbole? What are the big dangers that commercial fishermen face day in and day out?
Lapham: Well, like you said, a lot of the drama is created by interpersonal relationships. And I would like to say that the majority of fishing boats out here on the water don’t operate in that kind of environment. So we do everything we can to make sure we’re working as a team, and making sure that we’re not putting ourselves in situations that are dangerous and being prepared for when situations happen that are dangerous, that we can navigate through them and come out safe.
Miller: Have you dealt with injuries? Have you sustained injuries as a fisherman?
Lapham: Yeah, when I worked on deck, I suffered from the most common one, carpal tunnel syndrome and that’s something that. I don’t know if I’ve ever met somebody who doesn’t suffer from that, that works on deck. And sometimes it lasts a few days, like when we start a season and it’s intense work, and then our body adapts to it and other people might suffer from it and not be able to do the work because of that.
Miller: And what is it about the repeated tasks of the boats that you’ve been on, that you’ve worked on, that led to carpal tunnel? I mean, people who sit at desks all day and type can also get it, but that’s not what you’re talking about.
Lapham: Sure, but it’s still under the same, [because of] the repetitive motion. So, for example, we’ll run 500 crab pots. Well, actually 400 crab pots today, we’re out on the water. Each crab pot has three baiters in it. So there’s 1,200 snaps that the guys have to do and undo. So you got 2,400 motions split between the three guys that I have on deck. And imagine squeezing, I don’t know, like, I don’t wanna say a stress ball, because that’s therapeutic, but it’s the same thing where you’re squeezing like a car door handle, but it’s 10 times harder than the car door handle 1,200 times today. That’s what they go through.
Miller: Laurel Kincl, that’s just one example of a repetitive motion that can cause injury. What are some of the other ones that you have found to be most common in the surveys you’ve done and the interviews you’ve done?
Kincl: Well, I think, like Poggy described, when they’re pulling pots, he has 400 pots on the line. So the fishermen do the same motion over and over, to be able to harvest the crab and they’re also kind of handling the pot, not only kind of pinching the gear but their whole shoulders and arms are having to lift the pot and also get the crab out of there. And also, they’re standing on a deck that’s moving around, so they’re maintaining their balance.
As Poggy said, I think, especially towards the beginning of the season, they’re really kind of industrial athletes, is what we call them, because they have to be in good shape. And also, it’s a lot of coordination. He also mentioned team work. I think they have to work together and kind of coordinate that. And so I think it’s very important to consider and it’s also heavy loads - those pots full of crab weigh a lot and it does help that they have something that pulls the pot up. But it’s just all of the risk factors for sprains and strains, the repetitive motion, the heavy lifting and sometimes awkward postures are kind of altogether what leads mostly to the arms and the shoulders and the back being a concern.
Miller: The F and L of FLIPP as, as I noted, they stand for Fishermen Led. Laurel Kincl, how do you give fishermen the ability to guide the injury prevention work that you’re doing?
Kincl: Well, in my field of occupational health and safety, you have to hear what the workers, their experiences are and how and why they do the things they do in order to get their work done. They are really the experts at their job. I am not. And so we really wanted to reach out to fishermen. We did focus groups, we did these surveys to listen to fishermen and we don’t just ask what injuries they’re having. We’re asking, what do they think causes injuries and what do they think keeps them safe? And that is how we identified what resources might be helpful for the fishermen as well as what further research could be done in order to give them the information they need in order to make decisions or to improve their practices or improve their work environment.
Miller: Poggy, those are really big questions. I can imagine a professional like Laurel could talk to you for hours about either one of those. The first is what do you think leads to injuries and what do you think leads you and your crew to be safe? But, if you boil things down, how do you answer those questions? Taking the first one first? What do you think leads o injuries on a boat?
Lapham: Well, the nature of the work can lead to an injury because like Laurel mentioned, it’s heavy physical labor. I really like the term ‘industrial athletes.’
Miller: And so is that a phrase? I mean, does that make intuitive sense to you?
Lapham: Oh, definitely. And on my boat, what little world I know, where I can observe how our crew operates, we do we consider ourselves as such. And we don’t just go into the season cold turkey and start fishing, like we work through the gear first and we do things to make sure that we’re in shape, so that it’s not like a big shock to our system.
Miller: Like an athlete having a preseason.
Lapham: Exactly. Like practice. Yeah, we do our practice.
Miller: OK, so that’s one thing, not just starting cold, and having your bodies not be ready for it, so that’s a way to prevent injuries. Well, what leads to injuries?
Lapham: Laurel mentioned working together. And so if you have a new person on the crew or a person that doesn’t know a position because we have four separate positions that we work on the deck in the Dungeness crab fishery. And if you’re working opposite your partner and the partner doesn’t know how to work together with you, that would be something. So you’re compensating your motion in order to work with him or changing your motion in order to compensate for what they’re doing. It really takes teamwork and one way we can mitigate that here on this boat is everybody rotates. We all do every position, it switches several times a day. And so nobody gets stuck doing the same motion over and over and then they also all know how to do the other motions and how to work with a person on the other side of the table because they’ve been there.
Miller: Laurel, my understanding is that the most recent finding that you put out in your research paper and recommendation for commercial crabbers has to do with what are called banger bars. What are these? And what did you learn?
Kincl: Well, Poggy can probably describe it better, but it’s something that they put on top of a sorting table. So when they bring the pot onto the vessel, they have to empty the crab into a sorting table. Since it’s a sustainable fishery, some of the crab go back into the ocean and they keep some, and one way to get the crab out is to bang the pot on something. And so you can add this bar on top, which is above the height of the table so that it reduces the motion that the deck hand has to do in order to flip the pot to get the crab out.
Miller: And you found that these can, in fact, help reduce muscle strain on human bodies and looked into the potential ideal heights for them as well, if I’m not mistaken.
Kincl: Yeah, we learned about banger bars from fishermen, and we did this survey and we say, you know what causes injury. And then we asked what would help them. And so this was one of the ideas, one of the solutions that they had was a banger bar. And so what we decided was, well, we could take this into a lab and we can simulate those motions in order to measure how much it would benefit them. And so that is what we did find, is that using all of our biomechanical data and looking at shoulder and forces and everything like that, muscle exertion, that having a banger bar and having it at a certain height. . . so a higher height is really what made the difference.
Miller: Poggy, how much standardization is there in terms of the design of the equipment that you and your fellow crabbers or fellow fishermen are using and the way they’re used. I mean, is crabbing the same on all of these different privately owned boats?
Lapham: It’s a funny dynamic because we’re out here on boats and we’re doing something that all the other boats around us are doing, but we can’t observe each other while we’re doing it.
Miller: Because of distance?
Lapham: Because of distance, exactly. And so we all think we kind of have it figured out a little differently than everybody else. But the reality of it is that we’re all doing things pretty much the same. And one real important aspect of what Laurel is doing is she is starting to bring a standardization. You asked about standardization, and most of the time if somebody needs a dump box with a banger bar on it, they go to a shipyard or a metal fabricator and they ask for that to be built and the metal fabricator might say, “Well, what size and how high and how do we make this thing? We’ve never made one before.”
And so it’s this kind of squinting and looking at other boats and maybe talking to a couple of your buddies to figure out how to make it. And what Laurel brings to it as a scientific process where we can identify through her research, what the range of height of a banger bar or even height of the dump box itself would be in order to be the most useful and comfortable to work with on a fishing boat.
Miller: How would you describe, Poggy, the culture of commercial fishermen when it comes to people from the outside giving suggestions?
Lapham: The commercial fishermen are just a slice of the population. And so maybe a little bit more cantankerous, because of the nature of our job and the fact that we are out here alone and we get stuck in that mindset that we have it figured out on this boat and nobody needs to tell me what to do. But especially coming from a neutral source like Laurel, that kind of information on, hey, if you’re building this piece of equipment, here’s some basic parameters to make it more useful for your crew to use, it would be great. I think people would accept that instead of me walking down the dock and telling another boat how they need to do something. If there was just a resource we could reference, I think that would be received very well.
Miller: Well, Laurel Kincl, what does happen? What are the range of responses you get when you or members of your team go back to commercial fishermen and say, hey, we listened to you, we heard about this thing you’re doing, we looked into it. We did some studies, we looked at muscle strain and muscle exertion and this is what we found and this is what we recommend. What kinds of responses do you get?
Kincl: Well, I think Poggy said it really well. I think fishermen are just a slice of the population. And so as you can imagine, there are some that are really receptive and very grateful and it helps them to kind of think about the way they do things or what they could do differently. And then we also have some that really are not interested at all and tell us so, so I think it’s just like everybody and it also probably depends on the time of day or the time of the year. Sometimes they’re more receptive at certain times and open and sometimes they really do want to be left alone and they really do not want to hear any advice.
Miller: Poggy, we’ve talked a lot on this show in recent years about drug and alcohol use in Oregon and substance use disorder broadly and among all populations. How big an issue are drugs and drugs and alcohol when it comes to safety in commercial fleets?
Lapham: Thankfully, in my small world, on my boat, it isn’t an issue, but I do see it being an issue and I don’t think it’s any more or less prevalent than the general population.
But the problem we have in this industry is we’re driving around out on the ocean. And ultimately, I’m responsible and everybody’s responsible for their own safety on the boat and anything that takes away from our ability to respond to an emergency, any kind of inebriation from drugs or alcohol, takes away from our ability to respond to whatever situation presents itself. And then if we have a boat out here that is in a situation where they need help and they can’t take care of themselves because of whatever inebriation is going on, then it becomes the burden of me or anybody else that’s fishing around and the Coast Guard. So it puts more and more people at risk, if people are out here under the influence of any kind of drugs or alcohol.
Miller: Poggy, what would you like researchers like Laurel and others at FLIPP to tackle next in terms of improving safety or reducing injuries in your industry?
Lapham: I think I talked to Laurel a little bit about it right before we got on the show and looking at her literature that she’s put out, in particular there’s one on the website, a pamphlet that is like, hey, you wanna be a deckhand and you’ve never been out on a boat before? These are some of the things you need to know before you go. I think that would be a great thing to have on a big plaque in Newport, on the boardwalk. They have different sign boards or whatever you wanna call them, plaques, that have all the different fishing vessels and describe what they do, and having that same thing with her pamphlet on it and a QR code that an interested youngster or even a passing tourist could scan and just get more information about what her work has been and about what my industry is. I mean, this is a public resource. We’re out here with the fortune to be harvesting and it’s in the public’s best interest to really know what’s going on.
Miller: Poggy Lapham and Laurel Kincl, thanks very much.
Kincl: Thank you.
Miller: Poggy Lapham is a commercial fisherman based in Newport. Laurel Kincl is an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at Oregon State University. They joined us to talk about FLIPP. It is the Fisherman Led Injury Prevention Program led by Oregon State University.
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