From Asia to America, aquaculture is one of the world’s fastest-growing food production systems, yet many still face dangerous working conditions every day.
Aquaculture, like other types of farming, has its share of dangerous and even fatal risks.
Just as farmers working on land must respect and follow safety protocols surrounding livestock and massive agricultural machinery like tractors, combines and balers, so must the women and men working in aquaculture observe risk-reduction practices around recirculating systems, pumps, cages and other equipment. For the safety of themselves and others.
Believed to have first been practised in Asia around 1000 BCE to ensure supplies of fresh fish for royalty, aquaculture still retains many of the customs and techniques adopted in those early days. While materials and technologies have developed, some safety procedures for working around fish and seafood, both wild capture and farmed, remain unchanged despite the many forms of risk.
For instance, while some fish species, like catfish, seem benign, they have always presented dangers to workers. The spines along the dorsal and pectoral fins of catfish are sharp and contain venom; improper handling can cause significant injury, infection, and inflammation.
From pulled muscles and back injuries to drowning or electrocution, fish farmers (aquaculturists), unless they take special care, are as prone to accidents as any other farmers.
While television is full of reality shows about extreme activities and dramatic shows like the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, where waves threaten to capsize boats in the Bearing Sea, even working closer to shore in the fishing industry has its share of hazards. In some countries, such as Norway, salmon fish farmers have a high rate of workplace-related injuries and illness.
Statistically, the fishery business is a wide-ranging industry, encompassing both workers out at sea – which is how we mostly imagine it – and the relatively stay-at-homes in fish farming and aquaculture.
But what was once considered a “secondary income source for Norwegians” has become big business, according to Norwegian SciTech News. Despite its relatively small population of about 5.3 million, Norway is one of the Top 10 countries for aquaculture production by metric tons. And as the industry grows, occupational health and safety procedures are trying to keep up with the number of aquaculture-related accidents, which is now “second only to commercial fishing as the most hazardous occupational sector in Norway.”
It’s a matter of no small concern. According to the Norwegian study Safety Management in Aquaculture, recent growth in the aquaculture industry has been rapid. Scrambling to meet demand, employers aren’t always ensuring that new employees receive the necessary degree of oversight from their superiors, or that there is sufficient health, safety, and work-environment planning (HSE).
Since recent hires are frequently less well-trained than seasoned employees, safety practices aren’t as well observed. As a result, aquaculture-related injuries are now a major cause of workplace absence in Norway, right up there behind commercial fishing.
Conference on safety
Some areas slated for improvement in the Norwegian study – including HSE (Health, Safety and Environment – shorthand for the prescribed methods of managing threats to health in a workplace), better reporting of incidents, and better training – apply to aquaculture in all countries.
Too often, accidents fail to be reported, with no opportunity to learn from them. Worker fatigue, and the employment of undertrained contractors, also have negative safety implications.
Fortunately, safety issues in the aquaculture sector are not going unnoticed. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – an agency of the UN leading global initiatives to fight hunger – has highlighted risks, and is working to create greater awareness.
And in mid-2018, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Memorial University was home to IFISH5, the fifth International Fishing Industry Safety and Health Conference.
Featuring experts from across the United States, Norway, and New Zealand, the event pulled in over 160 health and safety professionals from 26 countries. Discussing the latest information on all areas of aquaculture, including commercial fishing and seafood processing, IFISH5 also drew attention to the high number of work-related incidents.
Compared to some other industries such as construction and mining, the estimated number of workers worldwide in aquaculture is modest, at 19 million, but with many regularly operating under dangerous conditions. Conservative estimates are that there are over 32,000 fatalities per year.
According to the FAO, “The number of fishers injured or suffering from work-related illnesses are much higher. The fatalities and accidents have major impacts on fishers’ families, fishing crews and fishing communities.”
While some in the sector are well-trained, others, including migrant and seasonal workers, women, and even children, are not so fortunate. This extends not only to fishing itself, but to seafood processing where occupational safety and health risks are often overlooked for the sake of productivity.
Poorly-trained workers can typically be exposed to such hazards as seafood allergens causing skin rashes and breathing issues, extremely loud noises resulting in hearing loss, harmful chemicals, and even “ergonomic hazards causing musculoskeletal disorders,” according to the FAO, which goes on to say, “Too often, these occupational diseases are underdiagnosed and under-reported, resulting in significant disability and poor quality of life of workers in seafood processing.”
Solutions for a challenging environment
With greater attention paid to health and safety issues through the FAO and events such as IFISH5, more can be done to address and make positive changes to the global aquaculture industry.
The hard-working men and women in aquaculture face hazards of a challenging environment every day to provide food for the planet. From hatcheries and nurseries to processing facilities and ships out on the ocean in all kinds of weather, risks abound.
Bites, falls, electrocution, drowning, and injuries relating to machinery are not uncommon on vessels. Working in extreme heat or cold also presents challenges, as do the bacteria from feed, operating in confined spaces, dehydration, parasites, and the sheer impact and mental exhaustion of working long hours, sometimes in solitude.
For aquaculture workers, ways to reduce workplace injuries include carrying smaller loads. This is helpful in fish farms, and benefits even the fish by reducing their chances of falling from overflowing nets and becoming injured.
Hauling lighter amounts of feed also reduces the chances of a sprained back or torn muscles. Some farms, in fact, no longer use trucks in the process of feeding fish, switching to moving the feed through a pipe via an auger, with the amounts measured and controlled by computer software.
Statistically, one of the greatest risks on fish farms is slips and falls on wet surfaces, or ice. By keeping metal crosswalks clean, well maintained, and covered with a traction surface in good condition, these are less likely. On wooden crosswalks, ingenious companies in the United Kingdom are improving traction by covering them with a layer of roughened concrete, or attaching chicken wire.
Mostly, precautions and safety measures in aquaculture are like those in construction. Ladders should be properly secured, and wiring must be up to code, with breaker boxes and ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) – which will shut off current in less than one fortieth of a second – used around water.
From tripping hazards to harmful gases like hydrogen sulphide, and from becoming entangled in nets to exposure to chemicals, risks abound in the world of aquaculture. Failing to recognize hazards can be disastrous to workers and businesses alike, resulting in physical injuries and costly medical expenses, lost income, and even lawsuits. Through constant vigilance, these dangers can be averted.