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Alaska workplace fatalities have fallen sharply since 1990s

Lisa Demer

The number of Alaskans dying in traumatic ways on the job dropped remarkably after the 1990s, a new federal study says.

Commercial fishing remains Alaska's most dangerous occupation based on the sheer number of deaths, but even there, fatalities dropped by almost half. And the second most dangerous occupation, aviation, is also far less deadly than it used to be, said the study, reported Wednesday by the Alaska Division of Public Health.

Overall, work-related deaths of Alaskans declined from 648 in the 1990s to 379 a decade later -- down by more than 42 percent. The numbers don't include fatalities from heart attacks or other medical causes, only traumatic deaths, like the 29 people who died between 2000 and 2009 from violence at the workplace, including suicide.

Safety experts say efforts on a number of fronts have paid off. Thousands of fishermen have gotten targeted training in marine safety and survival. Management of some key fisheries changed so that crews didn't have to risk stormy seas or overloading their vessels to catch as much as possible during short openings, but rather operate now under assigned individual quotas. Hundreds of small planes have been equipped with avionics that show pilots the terrain.

"We're proud of the collaborations with workers and all of the government agencies that we've worked with to see this trend occur, this downward trend in fatalities," said Jennifer Lincoln, who is deputy director of the Alaska office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

"But I don't think we can say that our work is finished. Both commercial fishing and aviation are still high-risk occupations so we have to be diligent and continue to come up with ways to prevent those fatalities from occurring."

In addition to the heartache and loss from the deaths individually, employers and insurers nationwide spent nearly $79 billion on workers' compensation in 2008, just a portion of the real costs of work-related injuries and fatalities, the report said.

DYING AT SEA

Perhaps the most striking improvement in safety came in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Island crab fishery. In the 1990s, at least one crab boat capsized most years and sometimes multiple boats went down. On average, eight crab fishermen were dying a year at sea in Alaska.

A number of vessels were overloaded with too many crab pots, which weigh hundreds of pounds, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Chris Woodley, who helped develop a stability and safety program to address the problem. He used to be stationed in Alaska and now is chief of the prevention department for the Coast Guard in Puget Sound, where many vessels that fish Alaska make their home port.

In 1999, the Coast Guard began doing spot checks of crab boats before they went out to make sure they weren't overloaded. Almost every year at least one or two captains would have to remove crab pots, which could mean a less lucrative, though safer, run. Woodley remembers one captain in those early days who was steamed.

"I was pretty sure he was going to throw me in the water or do something violent," Woodley said, making light of the captain's reaction years later. "It was one of those situations where I thought I should get off the boat now."

After that, a few crew members died after falling overboard but just one crab boat went down, the Kodiak-based Big Valley in January 2005. It had problems before with complying with load limits. The Coast Guard wanted to include it in the spot checks that season but couldn't find the vessel, Woodley said. Five died. The investigation found the boat was overloaded with about twice the weight of crab pots as it was designed for, he said.

"The program was designed to prevent exactly that," Woodley said.

In 2005, the fishery changed to an individual quota system, so captains didn't feel pressure to race out in bad weather because they were guaranteed a share of the catch.

Just one crab fisherman has died since then, after falling overboard, according to statistics Woodley provided.

"It's a much better picture than what it used to be," he said.

In addition, thousands of Alaska fisherman have gotten safety training that has proven to be effective, Lincoln said.

The Sitka-based Alaska Marine Safety Education Association alone has trained more than 10,000 fishermen in marine safety and survival through a Coast Guard-required class on emergency drills, said Jerry Dzugan, the group's executive director.

Still, during 10 years ending in 2009, 111 commercial fishermen died on the job in Alaska. In all, counting other crew members, there were 133 deaths on vessels in Alaska. About half drowned after a vessel capsized and a third were caused by falls overboard. The biggest number, 39, occurred in salmon fisheries. But the highest rate of deaths occurred on factory trawlers.

AIRPLANE SAFETY

During that same period, there were 48 fatal aircraft crashes in Alaska resulting in 78 deaths considered work related. Forty-seven pilots died, as did other crew and people traveling to job sites, such as biologist Gordon Haber, killed in a 2009 crash while tracking wolves.

That's down by more than half from the 1990s.

Mary O'Connor, manager of the aviation safety program for the Alaska office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said several changes have made a difference.

First, 150 weather cameras have been installed at remote airports and at mountain passes around Alaska, with another 71 planned. Pilots can go online (akweathercams.faa.gov) before taking off to check current weather images and compare them with clear day images.

The Federal Aviation Administration began a trial project in 1999 equipping 208 small planes in the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta and another 170 in Southeast Alaska with avionics that would show a moving map of the terrain, O'Connor said. A pilot operating under visual flight rules who ended up in the clouds could check the panel for the nearest low terrain, to get below the cloud cover.

The FAA also has an education program directed at teaching passengers that they, too, are responsible for safety. They shouldn't pressure pilots to fly in bad weather. They shouldn't try to take extra bags if that will overload the plane, O'Connor said.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.


By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com