- Although the seafood processing industry is vital to Alaska’s economy, limited research has addressed workers’ safety and health. Federal and state regulators have classified both offshore and onshore seafood processing worksites in Alaska as high-hazard environments; however, there is a dearth of published information on safety and health outcomes in the industry. There is evidence from the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses that these workers are at high risk for nonfatal injuries and illnesses. Nonfatal incidents can be severe, resulting in workers' lowered productivity, lost worktime and wages, lowered quality of life, and disability. Research is needed to inform targeted injury and illness prevention strategies in this economically important and understudied industry. To conduct surveillance research on safety and health in this industry, we utilized two data sources – one which captured information on offshore worksites, and another which captured information on onshore worksites. To research safety and health programs at Alaskan worksites, we engaged stakeholders who directed and managed these programs.
US Coast Guard reports were utilized to determine patterns of traumatic injury characteristics and circumstances, as well as identify modifiable worksite hazards, among offshore seafood processors working in Alaskan waters during 2010-2015. One fatal and 304 nonfatal injuries were reported to the Coast Guard across multiple fleets of catcher-processor and mothership vessels. The most frequently occurring injuries were: by nature of injury, sprains/strains/tears (75, 25%), contusions (50, 16%), and fractures (45, 15%); by body part affected, upper extremities (121, 40%) and trunk (75, 25%); by event/exposure resulting in injury, contact with objects and equipment (150, 49%), and overexertion and bodily reaction (76, 25%); and by source of injury, processing equipment and machinery (150, 49%). The work processes most frequently associated with injuries were: processing seafood on the production line (68, 22%); stacking blocks/bags of frozen product (50, 17%); and repairing/maintaining/cleaning factory equipment (28, 9%). Some injuries, such as serious back injuries, intracranial injuries, and finger crushing or amputations, had the potential to lead to long-term disability.
Alaska workers' compensation claims data were utilized to (a) estimate the risk of nonfatal injuries and illnesses, (b) determine patterns of incident characteristics and circumstances, and (c) identify modifiable workplace hazards among onshore workers in the seafood processing industry during 2014-2015. During the study period, 2,194 claims were accepted for nonfatal injuries and illnesses. The average annual claim rate was 48 per 1,000 workers. The most frequently occurring injuries and illnesses, were: by nature, sprains/strains/tears (747, 36%), contusions (353, 17%), and lacerations/punctures (227, 11%); by body part, upper extremities (880, 43%) and trunk (422, 21%); and by event/exposure, contact with objects and equipment (721, 36%) and overexertion and bodily reaction (697, 35%). Incidents resulting from line production activities (n=623) frequently involved: repetitive motion; overexertion while handling trays/pans, basket/buckets, and fish/shellfish; and coming into contact with fish/shellfish, trays/pans, and processing machinery. Incidents resulting from material handling activities (n=339) frequently involved overexertion while handling boxes/cartons/bags, and falls/slips/trips.
Interviews with safety and health directors/managers were conducted to investigate: (a) offshore and onshore worksite and workforce characteristics; (b) safety and health program features; (c) economic factors influencing programs; and (d) program challenges and successes. Based on the common findings across these topics, we identified workplace factors that could be modified to improve safety and health. Interview participants reported directing/managing programs for 68% of the 25,000 workers in this Alaskan industry. The 14 participants represented 13 companies that operated 32 onshore plants and 30 vessels, employing an estimated 17,000 workers at peak season, of which 84% were processors. Participants noted widely varying degrees of program buy-in and engagement from management and workers, ranging from basic compliance with standards to full partnerships for carrying out best practices. While some participants reported that fostering a proactive safety culture and “prevention mindset” were among their greatest successes, others discussed the challenges of overcoming an “old guard mentality” that did not prioritize safety. Most participants noted that language barriers among the diverse workforce presented difficulties when communicating, especially during training. Ergonomic hazards and long work hours were frequently reported as areas of concern.
The epidemiologic studies identified similar patterns of injuries and modifiable hazards in offshore and onshore worksites. Among both seafood processors in vessels, and workers of various occupations in plants, preventing musculoskeletal injuries – particularly to the upper extremities and trunk – is paramount for improving occupational health. In offshore work environments, hazard control measures should target: (a) overexertion from lifting and lowering objects and equipment; (b) equipment and boxes falling and striking workers; (c) workers being caught in running machinery during regular operations; and (d) slips, trips, and falls. Similarly, in onshore plants, hazard control measures should target: (a) repetitive motion, overexertion, and contact with equipment during line production; (b) overexertion due to manually lifting, lowering, pushing, and pulling materials and equipment; and (c) slips, trips, and falls. Interviewing safety and health directors and managers uncovered additional workplace factors that could be modified in order to improve workers’ safety and health. These factors included: worksite manager training; worker training; adoption of ergonomics; work hours; knowledge sharing within the industry; and organizational aspects related to safety culture. Participants reported that fully engaging workers in all aspects of their safety and health programs was beneficial to their programs’ success.
To assist industry members with protecting workers’ safety and health, occupational health practitioners and researchers could support the development and evaluation of training for limited-English-speaking-workers, fatigue risk management systems, and ergonomic solutions. In the long-term, this research project will help prevent injuries and illnesses among workers in the seafood processing industry.