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Shrimp Trawling Comes With Big Risks

Think your job is bad? Quit whining, unless you're a shrimper in the Gulf of Mexico.

Commercial fishermen have the highest rate of on-the-job fatalities of any occupation in the country — 116 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2010. A majority of the deaths happen when a fishing vessel sinks. About a third occur when someone goes overboard.

But 10 percent of the more than 500 deaths of commercial fishermen between 2000 and 2009 involved entanglement with machinery on deck, according to government figures. Most of those accidents happened to shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico.

Researchers at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health dug into the data and found that between 2000 and 2011, there were 35 serious injuries involving deck winches on various shrimping vessels in the South.

Shrimp boats trawl for the tasty crustaceans with nets hung over the sides of the boat. Loose clothing or an arm can get caught in winches that pull the nets in.

Half the nonfatal winch injuries were amputations. Most of the injuries that people survived involved their upper extremities, such as hands and arms. The fatal injuries tended to involve multiple body parts.

All told, there were three winch injuries a year over the course of the study. The researchers figure that the available data probably understate the problem, because less serious but still significant injuries may not have been reported.

"Deck winches are extremely hazardous mechanisms, with entanglements causing death to some workers and amputated limbs and other permanent disabilities to others," the investigators conclude in their analysis, which was published Thursday in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

A few years back, NIOSH researchers and engineers investigated winch-related injuries among Alaskan purse seine fishermen. The team came up with an emergency stop button that was licensed to a manufacturer for use on new and old winches.

"A similar approach appears to be needed to develop viable prevention solutions to the unique hazards winches present on shrimp vessels," the authors of the latest report write.

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