The Fisheries sector is a high-risk sector. The incidence rate (i.e. figures corresponding to the number of workers employed in the sector) of fatal accidents is 23.82 compared to the average incidence rate of 1.65. Only the Forestry and logging sector has a slightly higher incidence rate of 24.48. Therefore, the fisheries sector is (almost) the most dangerous sector of the European union (data 2017, EU28) 
This article will look at typical problems in this sector, describing the reasons and highlighting prevention and control measures.
This article looks at commercial fishing and leaves out fishing as leisure and recreational activity. The European sector definition includes not only catching, transporting and landing living resources from the sea, from lakes, rivers, canals, etc., but also the operation of fish hatcheries and fish farms, as well as processing of the catch onboard fishing vessels.
Fishing can be further subdivided by the location, where the fish is caught, e.g. deep-sea fishing and coastal fishing. Another distinction is made by the methods employed, and by the type of vessel or equipment used.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines a fishing vessel as any ship or boat used or intended to be used for the purpose of commercial fishing. The European community defines it more strictly as any vessel flying the flag of a Member State or registered under the plenary jurisdiction of a Member State and used for commercial purposes either for catching or for catching and processing fish or other living resources from the sea. 
Fishing methods, types of vessels and equipment
Bottom trawling and mid-water trawling are among the most common methods, whereby large nets (trawls) are pulled by the trawlers called vessels either over the sea bottom or somewhere between bottom and surface at a specified depth. Modern trawlers are usually decked vessels designed for robustness. Their superstructure (wheelhouse and accommodation) can be forward, midship or aft. Motorised winches, electronic navigation and sonar systems are usually installed. Fishing equipment varies in sophistication depending on the size of the vessel and the technology used. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) classifies the trawlers according to the fishing gear they use into e.g. outrigger and stern trawlers. 
However fishing vessels can be of widely varying sizes, depending on whether they are ocean going or confined to coastal or inland fishing, depending on the size of the company, such as large enterprises, small companies or artisanal fisheries, and depending on the methods employed. Wet-fish trawlers and factory ships are used for deep-sea fishing, and small trawlers are used in middle-water sea fishing. Small, partially open vessels and shellfish vessels are used for coastal fishing. In deep-sea fishing, large trawlers (longer than 45m) catch the fish, process it and store it on ice. A crew of between 8 and 16 men work on board. A trip usually lasts 2-4 weeks. On factory ships, the fish is caught, processed and deep-frozen. The crew consists of approx. 60 men a trip lasts up to 6 month.
Major fishing methods depend on the target species and include: trawling, purse seining (encircling gear), line fishing, and drift gill nets..
Jensen and colleagues suggested in 2003 a classification of working processes to facilitate occupational hazard coding on industrial trawlers and five other fishing methods, namely Danish seines, gill-netters, pound net, trawling, and beam trawling. They related the suggested working processes to the number of injuries reported to the Danish Maritime Authority by vessels sailing the waters of Denmark, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands (1996-2000). The most dangerous processes were: hauling the gear, preparing the gear (nets), traffic (i.e. persons moving on the ship, e.g. while embarking or disembarking), handling fish (others).
The European Union defines the personnel working on board a fishing vessel as follows:
- "Worker": any person carrying out an occupation on board a vessel, excluding shore personnel;
- "Owner": the registered owner of a vessel or, where applicable, the demise charterer or person managing the vessel;
- "Captain": (skipper) the worker who commands the vessel or has the responsibility for doing so.
- "Employer: the person who has an employment relationship with the worker. This may be the owner, the skipper, or some other person.
- "Worker": any person employed by an employer, including trainees and apprentices.
Comparing the sectors of the economy in the EU28, the sector of agriculture, forestry and fisheries continuously declines over the last decades. Its proportion of employment declines from 8.4% in 1996 to 4.1% in 2019 . Fisheries ranges among the last sectors considering employment and gross value added (GVA) (see: Sectors and occupations). Nevertheless, fish provides a considerable proportion of human alimentation in the European Union. This is particularly true for the average European, who consumes 25.1 kg of fish or seafood per year (almost 4 kg more than in the rest of the world) (data 2015)  This underlines the importance of this sector for food security. But the technical progress has led to overfishing and the European Community was compelled to enforce strict fish quotas. Since 2013 the measures seem to pay off as some fish stocks tend to recover.
Other important issues in this subsector include conflicts of interests in international waters, fishing zones used as maritime routes or the cohabitation of energy production activities (drilling platforms, wind farms, etc.) and fishing, recreational or aquaculture activities, the monitoring of seas to ensure control and security and to combat illegal activities. All these cannot be managed without strong international cooperation .
Accidents at work
Fishing used to be a NACE defined sector of its own (category B). But since the 2008 revision (NACE rev. 2) it has become a subsector of NACE category A – agriculture, forestry and fishing, making it difficult to compare figures over a longer period of time. All member states are obliged to keep statistics on accidents at work and record the data as specified in the EU legislation (regulation 1338/2008/EC  and regulation 349/2011/EU ). The datacollection is based on a single system, the European Statistics on Accidents at Work (ESAW). The data collected based on this harmonised ESAW-methodology are available on the Eurostat website. Table 1 shows the number and the incidence rate of fatal accidents in the EU between 2010 and 2017 of the Fishing and aquaculture sector as well as the Manufacturing and Construction and the Total (all sectors). They show a very high incidence rate (23.82) for the Fisheries and aquaculture sector in comparson with the average incidence rate in the EU (1.65). Also in comparison with the construction sector traditionally considered to be a high-risk sector, the incidence rate is 4 times higher. Furthermore, between 2010 and 2017, the number and rate of accidents has steadily decreased. This is not the case for the Fisheries and aquaculture sector. There is need for caution in interpreting these data as the numbers are very small for this sector. This makes it difficult to draw clear conclusions and detect trends. However, data from national occupational statistics show similar results. The risk is not proportional to the size of the sector, e.g. in the UK, the incidence rate of fatal accidents in the fisheries sector was 15 times higher than the national average. In Sweden it was 22 times higher than the national average and in Spain 8 times higher than the national average .
Table 1 - Number and incidence rate of fatal accidents in the EU between 2010 and 2017 (EU28 – ESAW)
|Fishing and aquaculture||29||37||27||32||57||46||26||32|
|Fishing and aquaculture||17.42||23.16||15.34||21.8||43.26||37.19||19.99||23.82|
(*) cases per 100,000 workers Source: Table compiled based on Eurostat 
Table 2 is based on the same data source (ESAW – Eurostat) but shows the figures for non-fatal accidents (4 days absence and more). The incidence rate for the Fisheries and aquaculture sector is more than twice higher than the average (3514.05 in comparison with 1556.86). As in the case of fatal accidents, it is noteworthy that the general downward trend is not noticeable in the Fisheries and aquaculture sector. Because of the seriousness of the accidents occurring in the sector, workers are normally absent longer than in other sectors. A large proportion of the non-fatal accidents in the sector (data 2012) led to 7 and more days of absence, whereas the proportion of accidents leading to less than 6 days of absence was relatively small. This leads to increased social security costs and reduced output for the employer .
Table 2 - Number and incidence rate of non-fatal accidents in the EU between 2010 and 2017 (EU28 – ESAW)
|Fishing and aquaculture||4407||4719||4453||4754||5743||5063||5133||4721|
|Fishing and aquaculture||2647.05||2953.7||2689.23||3239.09||4358.66||4092.86||3947.63||3514.05|
(*) cases per 100,000 workers Source: Table compiled based on Eurostat 
Table 3 provides information on the place where the accident occurred (working environment). These figures are not available for the subsector of Fisheries and aquaculture. Therefore the table makes a comparison between Agriculture, forestry and fishing and All NACE activities. The data show that almost half of all accidents at work in the Agriculture, forestry and fishing sector occur in a Farming, breeding, fish farming, forest zone working environment. Accidents on/over water account for 5.74% of all fatal accidents in the Agriculture, forestry and fishing sector.
Table 3 – Fatal and non-fatal accidents at work by Work environment – 2017 - EU28
|Fatal accidents||Non-fatal accidents|
|Agriculture, forestry and fishing||Total - all NACE activities||Agriculture, forestry and fishing||Total - all NACE activities|
|Construction site, construction, opencast quarry, opencast mine||0.66||14.59||0.29||9.19|
|Farming, breeding, fish farming, forest zone||46.17||8.09||35.45||3.18|
|Tertiary activity area, office, amusement area, miscellaneous||0.44||4.9||0.63||18.39|
|In the home||0.66||1.62||0.23||2.41|
|In the air, elevated, excluding construction sites||1.77||2.42||0.33||0.53|
|Underground, excluding construction sites||0.22||1.1||0.03||0.15|
|On /over water, excluding construction sites||5.74||1.53||1.81||0.3|
|In high pressure environments, excluding construction sites||0.66||0.08||0.02||0.01|
|Other Working Environments not listed in the classification||0.88||0.63||0.66||0.83|
Source: Table compiled based on Eurostat 
Work-related health problems
Table 4 shows the data on work-related health problems according to the sector. In the sector of Agriculture, forestry and fishing more workers than average report that they are confronted with a work-related health problem.
Table 4 - Persons reporting a work-related health problem by sector – 2013 – EU28
|Total - all NACE activities||7.7|
|Agriculture, forestry and fishing||9.9|
|Industry (except construction)||7.3|
|Wholesale and retail trade, transport, accommodation and food service activities information and communication||7.0|
|Financial and insurance activities, real estate activities, professional, scientific and technical activities, administrative and support service activities, public administration and defence, compulsory social security, education, human health and social work activities, arts, entertainment and recreation, other service activities, activities of households as employers undifferentiated goods- and services-producing activities of households for own use, activities of extraterritorial organisations and bodies||8.0|
Source: Table compiled based on Eurostat 
In 2007 the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the “Work in Fishing Convention" (No. 188), which establishes minimum working and living standards that fishers should expect and that fishing vessel owners should follow. The convention puts in place a system of flag and port State control inspection of working and living conditions on fishing vessels. According to the ILO, this is an essential element of establishing decent working and living conditions for fishers, including migrant fishers, and also contributes to addressing other issues such as IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing, forced labour and human trafficking, and child labour. The standards of the Convention contain provisions designed to ensure that workers in the fishing sector have improved occupational safety and health and medical care at sea and that sick or injured fishers receive care ashore; receive sufficient rest for their health and safety; have the protection of a written work agreement; and have the same social security protection as other workers.. The Work in Fishing Convention entered into force in 2017 . The standards of the Convention are supplemented by the accompanying Work in Fishing Recommendation (No. 199) .
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has developed, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture organization (FAO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), a number of non-mandatory instruments. These include the FAO/ILO/IMO Document for Guidance on Fishermen's Training and Certification and the revised Code of Safety for Fishermen and Fishing Vessels, 2005, and the Voluntary Guidelines for the Design, Construction and Equipment of Small Fishing Vessels, 2005. . These documents concern seaworthiness of the vessels, precautions against falling overboard, etc. Also education, qualification and training play an important role.
At EU level the Directive 1989/391/EEC - the “framework directive" - is the 'basic law' on occupational safety and health in the EU. Under this general directive, which is fully applicable in the fisheries sector, several so-called ‘daughter directives’ were adopted, some of which address the situation in specific sectors.
Directive 93/103/EC of 23 November 1993 concerning the minimum safety and health requirements for work on board fishing vessels sets the standards in the sector.  The directive is applicable to bigger vessels, namely new fishing vessels as per November 1995 (length between perpendiculars of 15 metres or over) and existing fishing vessels (length between perpendiculars of 18 metres or over). The Member States have to transpose the directive into their national legislative systems. Following the directive they have to ensure that:
- vessels are used without endangering the safety and health of workers;
- occurrences at sea that affect or could affect the safety or health of workers are described in a report that should be forwarded to the relevant competent authorities and are recorded in the ship’s log or similar document;
- vessels are subject to regular checks by authorities.
- new and existing fishing vessels comply with the minimum health and safety requirements laid down in the Annexes.
- vessels and their fittings and equipment are technically maintained and that defects found are rectified as quickly as possible;
- vessels and all fittings and equipment are cleaned regularly to maintain an appropriate level of hygiene;
- an adequate quantity of suitable emergency and survival equipment is available and in good working order;
- the minimum safety and health requirements concerning life-saving and survival equipment given in Annex III are observed;
- the personal protective equipment specifications given in Annex IV are observed;
- the skipper is supplied with the means needed to enable him to fulfil the obligations
- workers and their representatives are informed of all measures to be taken regarding safety and health on board vessels and this information must be comprehensible to the workers concerned.
- workers are given suitable training on safety and health on board vessels and on accident prevention. The training must cover fire fighting, the use of life-saving and survival equipment, the use of fishing gear and hauling equipment as well as the use of signs and hand signals. Moreover, any person likely to command a vessel must be given detailed training.
Another important European directive was established in 1992 and concerns the medical treatment onboard vessels, whereby fishing vessels are specifically addressed. The requirements for medical supplies are listed in the annexes of the directive. A distinction is made between three categories of vessels:
- A.Sea-going or sea-fishing vessels, with no limitation on length of trips.
- B.Sea-going or sea-fishing vessels making trips of less than 150 nautical miles from the nearest port with adequate medical equipment
- C.Harbour vessels, boats and craft staying very close to shore or with no cabin accommodation other than a wheelhouse.
The directive also requires that every vessel with a crew of 100 or more workers, which is engaged on an international voyage of more than three days has to have a doctor on board.
In 2012 the social partners in the European sea-fisheries sectors signed an agreement concerning the implementation of the ILO Work in fishing Convention (188). Among others the agreement sets out minimum age, compulsory medical examinations and certificates for fishermen. It deals with sufficient and qualified manning and specifies the limits on hours of work and rest. This agreement has been laid down in a directive (2017/159/EU). The directive requires that Member states have to comply with the ILO Convention but they may maintain or introduce provisions more favourable to workers in the sea fishing sector . This directive is a step forward for improving working conditions in the fisheries sector. Contrary to the directive on OSH in fisheries (93/103/EC), this directive covers in principle all fishing vessels and not only those vessels of 15 meters and over. Nevertheless, the directive contains some provisions are specifically addressed to vessels of a length of 24 meters or more or normally staying more than three days at sea .
The report COM (2009) 599 on the implementation of Directives 92/29/EEC (medical treatment on board vessels) and 93/103/EC (fishing vessels) highlighted that while there have been improvements in safety requirements and the safety training of crews on board fishing vessels, the impact of the fishing vessels directive has been limited. Firstly, because it applies only to larger vessels and little attention has been paid to working conditions that might increase the risk of occupational diseases and unhealthy lifestyles. Another problem is the limited number of labour inspectors who actually go on board vessels. It also highlighted that a non-binding EU guide for vessels under 15 m in length could help to address the extremely high rate of accidents in the fishing sector and the fact that many vessels fall outside the scope of the fishing vessel directive (see below).
The ex-post evaluation of the European Union occupational safety and health directives, published in 2017  indicated the need to align the OSH provisions for the maritime and fisheries sector with the ILO Conventions (e.g. Work in Fishing Convention, 2007) and international maritime agreements (e.g. IMO, see above). The evaluation also concluded that the list of mandatory medical supplies in the annexes of Directive 92/29/EEC needed to be updated and that coherence with international instruments should be enhanced. In October 2019, Annex II and IV of the directive have been replaced by new Annexes (directive 2019/1834/EU).
Since the OSH directive on fisheries (93/103/EC) applies for bigger vessels a non-binding guide for vessels under 15m in length has been published (2016). The guide, European guide for risk prevention in small fishing vessels, is designed to prevent risks arising on and around small fishing vessels. The different modules in the guide focus on key areas, notably the vessel, the crew, fishing operations, real case events, risk assessment and additional information such as on flotation devices, boat stability, first aid, work equipment and emergency drills. The guide is available in all EU languages .
Workers in this sector often have to carry out various physically demanding tasks under time pressure and in difficult weather conditions while being far away from the shore. Globalisation and overfishing have led to additional issues, such as longer journeys, tighter margins , culture and language problems, attacks by pirates. The following paragraphs describe the most important hazards and risks.
Depending on the area of operation the inappropriate construction of a fishing vessel regarding seaworthiness, strength, watertightness and stability can lead to capsizing and sinking of the ship. The same can be true for inappropriate maintenance of the ship. This applies as well to the engines, machines, equipment and appliances needed for the safe operation of the ship. E.g. breaking ropes may cause severe or even fatal accidents.
Falls overboard are the cause of many fatal accidents on small fishing vessels. Work spaces have to allow the safe conduction of the work processes.
There is usually a large variety of working environments and depending on the length of a journey, it may not always be possible to avoid heavy weather. Being at sea means that, in many cases, the consequence of an accident is more severe than if it happened on land.
Loud machinery noise and vibration are common on board fishing vessels. Working in the cold or under the beating sun for too long periods may lead to health problems that may even include cancer. The risk of skin and eye damage due to sun exposure is greater at sea than on land because of the unhindered reflection of the sunlight.
The shooting or hauling of fishing nets is a particularly high-risk task, with workers drowning or suffering injury after being struck by or entangled by fishing tackle. A worker being dragged into a winch or similar equipment, falls and being struck by moving objects (such as trawl equipment) are very common fatal and non-fatal accidents. Snagging of gear may lead to capsize of a vessel. Manual handling of heavy loads can lead to musculoskeletal problems.
Fishers and crew may have to deal with poisonous fish or other seafood, which may lead not only to acute effects but also to chronic health problems, such as allergies and asthma. Other problematic substances include preservatives, carbon monoxide, refrigerants, diesel motor emissions (DME), cleaning agents, solvents, paints, wood preservatives, glues, oils, greases etc. In order to cope with the long periods away from land, some workers may resort to alcohol, drugs and smoking.
Qualification and training
Insufficient qualification and training of the captain and of the crew may have severe consequences: collisions, groundings, rope breaking, etc.
Work schedules, shifts, extended working hours, time for resting, etc. that do not sufficiently consider the physical and psychosocial state of the workers may lead to physical and mental exhaustion, diminished reaction, alertness and concentration thus causing accidents and ill health.
Globalisation has increased overfishing and has compelled ships owners because of tighter margins, to make longer journeys, employ workers from other cultures with different languages, and run a greater risk to be attacked by pirates.
After the hazards have been identified, the next step is to determine who will be exposed to these hazards and to what extent. This will then lead to the identification of the necessary prevention and control measures, including reassessing the effectiveness of existing measures. The selection of measures has to follow a certain hierarchy to ensure that the most effective measures (e.g. avoidance and substitution) are considered first, and the least effective (e.g. personal protective equipment) are seen as the last resort. It is required to involve the workers into this risk assessment process, as they have sound knowledge about the conditions and risks at their own workplaces and this will increase their motivation to apply the developed measures.
The avoidance of risks can include: avoiding heavy weather by establishing a related policy and making use of weather forecasts, etc. (see also: Water transport – OSH issues)
Substitution of hazardous chemicals or processes by less hazardous ones include: the use of substitution databases such as SUBSPORT, water based paints, aqueous cleaning processes, TIG welding, etc.
The application of engineering controls include: the use of suitable ships for the intended fishing area and weather conditions, provisions against falling overboard, enclosures for machines, local exhausts, measures to minimize noise and vibration, safe fishing gear, safe maintenance  including pre-sailing checks, etc.
The application of organisational controls includes: the sufficient manning of ships, the responsible establishment of work schedules giving enough time for sufficient rest periods, controls for the storage and safe handling of raw materials, products, by-products and waste, restricted access to specific areas for experienced workers only, closure of watertight doors when not in use, procedures in place for recovering fouled gear, application of health monitoring, etc.
The use of personal protection equipment (PPE) when prevention and control measures do not suffice, can include high visibility clothing which protects against coldness, sunscreen against the UV radiation, life jackets, radio beacons, hearing protectors, etc.
Training and instruction should accompany all types of measures, to ensure that workers know the methods and processes, and practice them. Of special importance are the knowledge of life-saving appliances, fire prevention and fire fighting, first-aid equipment and safety drills.
When carrying out risk assessments, it is important to ensure the participation of the workers. Considerable challenges are linked to performing satisfactory risk assessments on fishing vessels. One such challenge is the fact that the work environment changes when the vessel is at sea and because risk assessments are often performed in port, some risks may not be reflected (e.g. changing weather conditions when operating, which may have an impact in the risks and hazards faced by the fishers). Also, risk assessments are often carried out by management not necessarily working at sea (particularly for larger vessels). Risk assessment provisions tailored for the specific work environment (i.e. fishing vessels) and for the workers in the sector are key to make risk assessments an effective tool for improving OSH conditions on board. The involvement of the workers in the risk assessment is a requirement of both the EU OSH directive (93/103/EC) and also the directive on working conditions (2017/159/EU) . The European non-binding guidelines, European guide for risk prevention in small fishing vessels, contain a specific module on risk assessment offering practical guidance .
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FAO - UN Food and agriculture organisation, Safety for fishermen. Available at: http://www.fao.org/fishery/safety-for-fishermen/en/
NIOSH, Commercial Fishing Safety. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/fishing/default.html