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close this bookCERES No. 072 (FAO Ceres, 1979, 50 p.)
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Health hazards reduced for crews of smaller boats

- thinking safety

Although in developed countries the fishing industry has entered an era of spectacular technological change, many fishermen in the developing world still put out to sea in various types of small motor or sailing vessels. In the event of accident or illness, these vessels, usually containing no provision for medical care, have no option but to return to land. This takes time, and inclement weather conditions may further delay arrival, with serious consequences for the fishermen concerned. Although it is difficult to present a definite picture of the extent of the health problems of developing world fishermen, it has been estimated that the frequency of injuries and illnesses among fishermen in general is about twice as high as among miners and some 30 times as high as for workers in industry. In addition, fishermen are badly served in comparison with land workers respecting availability of medical care.

Few countries have considered it feasible to adopt standards requiring the engagement of medical personnel on board fishing vessels, in view of the usually limited number of crew members, the short distances between fishing grounds and the coast, and the usual time spent at sea without returning to land. Where this has been done, the relevant standards are such that the majority of fishing vessels are excluded. Only a limited number of very large boats, usually equipped with factory plants for processing of the catch, qualify for the permanent presence of a doctor. Several developed countries maintain "support" vessels appropriately staffed and equipped to manage a wide range of diseases and injuries, yet their numbers are very limited elsewhere.

The usual absence of a physician or any other category of medical personnel on board fishing vessels increases the need to train crew members in basic first aid and medical assistance. Yet there is considerable diversity in the standards of medical training for fishermen, and on many vessels, members of the crew have no training whatsoever, even in emergency care.

To be effective in providing medical care, crew members need two basic tools: an adequately equipped and updated medicine chest, and a corresponding medical guide. Referring to national law and practice, there are several countries, mainly but not exclusively developing ones, which have not as yet regulated in a statutory manner the question of the availability of such tools. Some other countries such as Argentina, Ghana and Nigeria have enacted rules requiring fishing vessels to carry medicine chests, but to date they continue to maintain an element of flexibility as regards the mandatory requirement of a medical guide. If required, the nature of the medical guide as a rule is coordinated with the contents of the medicine chest.

Conventions, codes, recommendations and guidelines produced over the years by international organizations have done much to promote the safety and medical care of fishermen. The International medical guide for ships, published jointly in 1967 by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), assembles basic information on the immediate and follow-up care of a wide variety of diseases, injuries and other biological contingencies; it also reproduces the medical section of the International code of signals. Perhaps most notable is the Code of safety for fishermen and fishing vessels published jointly by IMCO, ILO and FAO. Part A, for skippers and crews, was published in 1970; Part B, for fishing vessel builders and owners, was published in 1975. Both a guide and an educational medium, the Code has been quite widely used. A 1977 IMCO convention on fishing boat safety has yet to be ratified by the member countries.

Yet the key to fishing safety is education, according to P. Gurtner, Chief, Fisheries Technology Service of FAO. "By enacting legislation, you don't change the situation, although all these standards certainly help," Gurtner says. "Improved boat and personal safety is really only available through a continuous process of upgrading the educational system that leads to better understanding of the operational hazards. You have to make people think in a safety-oriented way."

Fortunately, loss of life in most types of fishing is now much less frequent than a few generations ago, but primitive fishing in some areas is inherently dangerous. Furthermore, no technological advances can fully eliminate the forces of the sea and other natural dangers which the fisherman must face, nor is it possible to make the tools of his trade completely accident-proof. But Gurtner says most casualties are due to human failure - both accidental and intentional.

"Human greed is a big factor. A fisherman may be inclined to say to himself. 'If I can only hold out for another two hours might get the bumper crop and more money.' He risks his life simply to make some additional income."