Alaska Fishing Industry Job Safety
Processing jobs tend to be far less dangerous than fishing jobs. Nevertheless, some processing workers get sick or hurt badly enough to require medical treatment and occasional evacuation. The most common problems are cuts, fish and jellyfish poisoning, machinery-related injuries, exhaustion, flu and colds, carpal tunnel syndrome, and alcohol and drug-related problems.
At its simplest, the processing industry involves gutting fish. Most industry employees use knives to do this; more than a few cut themselves. The best ways to avoid cuts are to pay close attention to what you’re doing and to wear protective gloves. If you do cut yourself, bring it to the attention of your supervisor immediately.
When one of the authors worked in a processing plant in Ketchikan, several employees got an ugly, painful rash on their hands that the veteran slimers called “fish poisoning.” This was either caused by the salmon itself, or by poison jellyfish slime brought up in the nets. To protect yourself, avoid any direct contact between the fish and your skin by using good gloves. If you do get fish poisoning, don’t worry. Most pharmacists in fishing towns sell a salve to treat the condition.
Forklift and other heavy machinery operators get paid more than slime line workers, and the work is far less monotonous. Some newcomers to the industry may be tempted to overstate their qualifications to get a job operating machinery. Don’t do this! First of all, you’ll probably be fired once you’re found out, and if you aren’t, you’ll almost certainly be relegated to the far end of the slime line – the bottom of the totem pole. Secondly, operating heavy machinery is dangerous. Forklifts are very awkward and heavy. If operated ineptly, they can damage property and injure people. Heavy machinery operators must be trained. If you want to learn to operate machinery, tell the manager when you apply. If an opening occurs, you may be lucky enough to get the call.
Wrist and Hand Pain
Processing work often involves a lot of repetitive hand and wrist movements that can result in forearm and wrist pain, a common complaint among processing workers. For most people the discomfort is mild and only temporary, but for a few it can develop into a more persistent and painful malady called carpal tunnel syndrome.
The symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome are pain in the wrist, which may seem to shoot up into the forearm or the palm of the hand, and numbness or tingling in the fingers and hand. The pain is caused by swelling of the tendons and other tissue surrounding the main nerve serving the hand. Left untreated, it can become a serious problem. If you experience excessive pain in your wrists notify your supervisor. Often you can use wrist braces which alleviate the strain on your hands, or you can be shifted to a job requiring less stress on your limbs. If the problem persists you should seek medical treatment, since carpal tunnel syndrome can cause permanent damage if left untreated.
Fatigue, Flu, and Colds
Most people’s bodies aren’t used to working in cold, wet conditions at all, let alone for 16-plus hours a day. For this reason, the most common health problems among processor employees are fatigue, flu, and the common cold. To combat these problems, be sure to eat healthy meals regularly, and get plenty of rest.
Keep in mind that it’s impossible to work 16 hours, read for a couple hours, eat three meals, have a few beers, and still get a good night’s sleep. Most likely, your daily routine (except on weekends and days off) will be: eat, work, eat, work, eat, sleep (and then start over). Your overtime pay rate helps keep you motivated during the season.