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COMMENTARY: Fishermen need a better workers compensation system


While sitting back comfortably in my La-Z-Boy recliner watching recorded episodes of “Deadliest Catch,” I often wondered whether there's not a bit of hyperbole in this reality TV show's portrayal of the perils of crab fishing.

But fishing is, in fact, the most deadly occupation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The risk of suffering a fatal job injury is 50 times greater for those engaged in this line of work than for all other occupations. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, the fatality rate for fishermen was 203.6 per 100,000 workers, compared with a fatality rate of just 3.5 per 100,000 for all other occupations. The shellfish industry accounts for almost half of all fishermen killed on the job over a seven-year period ending in 2009, government statistics show.

As a reporter who has covered risk management for more than two decades, I also wondered what the workers compensation experience was like for employers of the fishermen featured on the “Deadliest Catch.” But while doing research on maritime worker injuries for this week's middle-market risk management section, I discovered that none of these workers are covered by workers compensation. Rather, they are covered by the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, more commonly known as the Jones Act.

If these workers are injured, their employers generally provide something called “maintenance and cure,” including emergency medical care and compensation for lost wages. If their injuries result in permanent disability, or if their maintenance and cure doesn't cover all of their injury-related expenses, these workers must file lawsuits alleging negligence on the part of their employers to obtain damages. And if they die, their families must take their loved ones' employers to court to obtain death benefits.

It was explained to me that these workers are not covered by state workers compensation systems because their place of employment is on the “navigable waters” of the United States, which often cross state and/or international borders.

By contrast, longshoremen — the maritime workers who load and unload these ships and work primarily in seaports — are covered by a no-fault system that makes treating their injuries easier. The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act is a federal workers compensation program that works much like state work comp systems, serving as the exclusive remedy for injured land-based maritime workers.

Given the inherent dangers of this work and the friction caused by litigation, Congress should extend the Longshore Act to include fishermen. A no-fault system like workers comp would be a more appropriate and user-friendly venue than the tort liability system to resolve maritime worker injury claims.

Using a single system for all maritime workers also could eliminate confusion over which act applies to which type of worker, making it possible for maritime employers to obtain a single insurance policy to cover all of their occupational injury risks.