Gulf shrimpers unable to conduct basic mayday call, study finds

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

UTHSCT researchers make most dangerous U.S. job safer

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), commercial fishing is the most dangerous industry in the United States, and Gulf of Mexico commercial shrimping is the most hazardous fishery. Last decade, 55 Gulf shrimpers lost their lives at work. The Gulf of Mexico commercial shrimp season began again on July 15.

Researchers at the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler found that commercial shrimpers operating in the Gulf of Mexico are unable to perform a basic mayday call and do not understand the horn blast communication system that vessels use when they encounter each other in open water. The Southwest Center began its research in 2004 with the ultimate goal of preventing injuries and deaths in the commercial fishing industry in the Gulf.

Vietnamese is the primary language of most fishermen in the Gulf commercial shrimp industry. “We found that culture and language were barriers to safety training and education,” says Southwest Center Director Dr. Jeffrey Levin. “Most Vietnamese report not speaking English well, which influences the way they do their job as they are fearful of communicating.”

In partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard, Southwest Center scientists conducted focus groups in Galveston/Houston, Belle Chase, and Abbeville and surveyed hundreds more Louisiana- and Texas-based shrimpers to determine the most serious threats to health and safety.

Already, 535 shrimpers in Texas and Louisiana have been trained to communicate with other vessels and to perform a mayday call. “Improving safety in the shrimping community improves safety for all vessels operating in the Gulf,” Dr. Levin explains.

Despite this success, funding for the program may be cut. The Southwest Center is one of seven national centers funded by NIOSH and directed to conduct research, education and prevention programs in fishing, agriculture and forestry. Funding for the NIOSH Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (AFF) Program is targeted for elimination in the president’s 2012 budget proposal.

“This program costs just $150,000 each year,” says Dr. Levin, referring to the commercial fishing research project. “That may sound like a lot until you compare it to the cost of using a C-130 fixed wing aircraft for an offshore search and rescue operation that bills nearly $10,000 per hour. Our job is primary prevention, preventing injuries and accidents from ever happening,” he adds. “Ours is a cost-saving and life-saving program.”

“What is most dangerous is that these operators and captains go out without knowledge of emergencies—how to put on a life jacket, how to use an emergency flair, how to help someone who has lost a limb to machinery,” says Gilbert Gallardo, a commercial fishing vessel safety examiner with the United States Coast Guard based in Texas City. “The Southwest Center’s work has really improved safety in the Gulf. [Shrimpers] know now how to use an emergency radio beacon,” he adds. “Before, they thought it was a hand grenade not to be touched.”

In addition to the findings regarding lack of ability to act in an emergency or perform basic navigation communication functions, researchers found that 60 percent of the shrimpers surveyed had elevated blood pressure measurements presumed related to lifestyle habits, and that most are at increased risk of hearing loss at work.

Based on their findings, Southwest Center scientists created key interventions to improve safety, including:
  • A Mayday and Navigation Signaling Training Program: The interactive program is available on CD; is presented in Vietnamese, Spanish and English; and will be given to commercial fishermen at no cost.
  • Equipment and campaigns to reduce hearing loss, fatigue and mechanical winch injuries.
High-quality ear muffs are provided in engine rooms, which often exceed safe noise levels. To accomplish their goals of improving safety in each of the areas of hearing loss, machine injuries and fatigue, the Southwest Center created signage that is posted at key locations on commercial fishing vessels and gave fishermen caps and t-shirts with the same signage to reinforce the safety messages.

Fishermen and farmers throughout the United States have called on members of Congress to preserve the nearly $23 million in funding for all similar NIOSH AFF programs nationwide.

The Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education is one of seven national centers directed to conduct research, education and prevention/intervention programs in the agricultural, forestry and fishing industries.

For more than 60 years, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler has provided excellent patient care and cutting-edge treatment, specializing in pulmonary disease, cancer, heart disease, primary care, and the disciplines that support them. UTHSCT’s annual operating budget of $125 million represents a major economic impact of over $287 million to the Northeast Texas region. In FY 2010, scientists in the Center for Biomedical Research were awarded 75 competitive grants and contracts totaling more than $14 million. As the academic health science center for Northeast Texas, its graduate medical education program – with residencies in family medicine and occupational medicine – provide doctors for many communities throughout the region and beyond.

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