November 28, 2017

For more than a decade, Jeff Levin has been working with shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico to make their jobs safer.

By Daniel Oppenheimer


There is a very simple way, says Dr. Jeff Levin, to cut down on the number of commercial shrimp fishermen who drown in the Gulf of Mexico. The fishermen, 80 or 90 percent of whom are Vietnamese immigrants, could wear personal flotation devices (PFDs)—life vests—whenever they’re on deck. It is a step, in fact, that could change the whole safety profile of the profession, which is one of the most dangerous in the nation.

It is also a step that is unlikely to be taken.

“The PFDs are bulky and hot,” says Levin, Provost at UT Health Northeast and former Chair of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences. “From what the fishermen have told us, they impede their ability to efficiently do their work.”

Levin, who is Director of the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention, and Education, has been researching safety conditions in the commercial shrimp fishing industry in the Gulf for more than a decade. Over that time, he and his colleagues have worked closely with the fishermen and their communities to better understand the conditions and challenges they face, and to collaborate with them on pragmatic steps that can be taken to improve safety.

A lot of the dangers, says Levin, are endemic to the job. A typical shrimping boat has large, heavy metal arms (outriggers) that project far out from the relatively small boat so that they can drag big, balloon-like nets along the bottom of the ocean. As a result, the boat is easily tilted, which creates risks not just for falling overboard, but for injuries onboard. In addition, extending and dropping the nets over the side of the boat requires heavy winches and cables, operated by powerful motors, and there is risk of getting banged up by, or caught in, the machinery.

Shrimp boats at dock. Image courtesy of the LSU AgCenter.

Shrimp boats at dock. Image courtesy of the LSU AgCenter.

The industry is also highly competitive, and easily disrupted by bad weather and man-made disasters like oil spills. So when the shrimping is good, the fishermen make the most of it. They stay out for weeks at a time, and work long, hard days. Exhaustion, and the increase in risk it brings, is inevitable. There isn't time, as well, to drop anchor to make repairs or fixes, so when a net needs to be repaired, for instance, crew members will typically climb out and repair it while the boat is moving, which increases the risk of falling into the water.

All these risks can be compounded by the linguistic and cultural challenges faced by the Vietnamese fishermen who have come to dominate shrimp fishing in the Gulf over the last few decades. Many of the fishermen don’t speak English, or have limited English. They don’t necessarily know the protocols or customs of fishing in the Gulf. And their communication with health and safety agencies, in the past, has been limited.

“My father was a fisherman in Vietnam, before he came here,” says Thu Bui, a fisheries extension agent with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center. “It was natural for him to plug into the fishing industry, but he didn’t speak English, and he also didn’t know the rules of the road. As a result, he ended up stepping on people’s toes accidentally.”

Thu Bui, a fisheries extension agent with the LSU AgCenter, in front of one of her father's shrimp boats. The boats are named after Bui and her sister. Image courtesy of the LSU AgCenter.

Thu Bui, a fisheries extension agent with the LSU AgCenter, in front of one of her father's shrimp boats. The boats are named after Bui and her sister. Image courtesy of the LSU AgCenter.

Bui, who came to the U.S. with her family when she was three, has worked with Levin over the past decade to help close the linguistic and cultural gap, and to develop safety interventions that make sense to the fishermen.  

These projects range from classes teaching basic English—how to say “mayday,” for instance—to taking fishermen through complex scenarios on the simulated boat deck that Levin and his team have built.

“There’s a kind of stage, with a steering wheel and a screen in front of it,” says Bui. “A fisherman can stand by the wheel as though he is driving the boat, and we can project different things onto the screen. A boat is coming toward you in one direction, so how many horn blasts would you blow? How would you make your turn? Who has the right of way? We can do man overboard training, to increase the chances of saving the life of someone who has fallen overboard.”

Working with feedback from the fishermen, Levin and his colleagues have recently implemented three different safety improvement pilots. One was focused on the dangers of engine room noise, and its potential for causing permanent hearing damage. Another was focused on the risk of fatigue. The third was focused on the risks of working around heavy, moving equipment, in particular the winches.

For all three of the pilot programs, they installed new Vietnamese language signage on boats, highlighting the risks, and printed and gave out T-shirt with the same messages. For the engine noise pilot, they also put noise-muffling earmuffs on hooks at the engine room entry, along with signage reminding fishermen to use them.

Earmuffs and Vietnamese language signage aboard a Houston/Kemah shrimp vessel at the entry to the engine room.

Earmuffs and Vietnamese language signage aboard a Houston/Kemah shrimp vessel at the entry to the engine room.

 “We have seen the greatest effect on behavior with that last one,” says Levin. “The others are more theoretical. The fishermen have reported an intention to adopt safer practices regarding fatigue and equipment use, but it’s very hard to measure. It is very tangible, on the other hand, to walk into the engine room, see a sign and see the earmuffs, and realize that you need to put them on.”

Because the commercial fishing industry is not very regulated, says Levin, it is important to think pragmatically about how to persuade and influence, rather than command, and about the kinds of behavior that can and can’t be influenced. There is a big difference, for instance, between protecting yourself from intense noise, for a limited period of time, and wearing a bulky PFD all the time.

There is also a difference, say Levin and Bui, in how people perceive different safety risks. Hearing loss is very tangible, and it is easy to draw an intuitive connection between the noise of the engine room and the potential consequences of long-term exposure. The risk of death on the job, on the other hand, is statistically high, compared to other professions, but it is still very low from the perception of a given fisherman.

“My father has been out on the water for more than three decades, and he feels at home there,” says Bui. “He feels safe. We didn’t know anyone, growing up, who drowned. So talking about the risk of drowning, about the statistics, is not going to persuade fishermen like my Dad to wear their life vests all the time. But talking about ways to lower the risk of winch entanglement can make a difference. Providing training on how to communicate with other boats can make a difference.”

Dr. Jeff Levin (right) conducting a training with Vietnamese-American shrimp fishermen. 

Dr. Jeff Levin (right) conducting a training with Vietnamese-American shrimp fishermen. 

One approach that Levin has taken to the issue of PFDs, where the optimal solution may not be realistic, is to think about ways that better design, and more flexible policies, may change the equation.

Right now, says Levin, the Coast Guard requires boats to have a Coast Guard approved PFD for every crew member, but the approved PFDs aren’t optimized for comfort. They’re optimized for safety, durability, and efficacy. The result, often, is less actual safety for the crew, because the fishermen aren’t inclined to wear them, and the boat owners aren’t inclined to spend additional money on other, more comfortable life vests, particularly those that don’t carry the stamp of approval.

“It gets even more complicated,” says Levin, “when you think about changing the rules to allow for more types of PFDs, because then liability comes into it. No one wants to say you can wear something lesser, because if you do, and you wear it and die, they may be liable.”

To try to bypass these dilemmas, Levin and his colleagues have conducted surveys with fishermen to determine which type of PFDs they’re most likely to wear. This work has been led by Dr. Ann Carruth, a long-time collaborator of both Levin and Bui, and Dean of Nursing at Southeastern Louisiana University.  They’ve also done some work on possible new designs. His hope is that they may find, or develop, a design that meets Coast Guard criteria but is also more practical for fishermen. Or they may be able to encourage boat owners to buy additional equipment—even a buoyant belt, for instance—regardless of Coast Guard rules.

These kinds of changes, combined with better guidelines on when the use of PFDs is most essential, may save lives even if the fishermen never adopt a universal policy of wearing life vests on deck.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the work that Levin, Bui, and others have done, however, isn’t a specific project or training. It is the improvement in the relationship between the health and safety community and the fishermen and their families and communities. There is more cooperation. There are more materials in Vietnamese. Trainings and events are often held at the community centers and churches in the Vietnamese community. There are dedicated staff like Bui who can work across the language barrier. And there is more trust.

“For anything to happen, the fishermen need to trust us,” says Bui. “If they trust us, they’ll come in for training. They’ll participate in our projects. They’ll put our signs up on their ships. There is no such thing as 100 percent safety, in any job, but particularly in a job like this. But we’ve made a lot of progress on making it safer.”