New report to highlight dangers facing aquaculture workers

Published on
January 31, 2018

The recent death of Scottish shellfish farmer Hugo Vajk in an accident on his oyster farm on the country’s west coast has dragged the dangerous nature of the business sharply into focus. It also highlighted the fact that, despite being one of the most hazardous industries in the world, the risks posed by fish and shellfish farming are poorly understood and mostly neglected.

A new study led by Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport aims to address this by highlighting the issues, and in doing so, seeking to protect the health of the world’s 18 million aquaculture workers. 

Experts recently met to finalize Watterson’s analysis of global aquaculture and fish farming occupational health and safety standards and challenges, in advance of a report which is due for publication in April 2018. The report will cover all aspects of the primary supply chain, in marine and freshwater locations.

“Our report aims to set out what does and does not work in terms of aquaculture occupational health and safety across the globe, and focuses on how to improve standards and reduce risks,” Watterson said. “We have looked at hatcheries, nurseries and growout phases, and everything from diving, through refurbishing or construction of production units, to feeding, harvesting, processing, and transport of produce.”

The study was administered by the International Union of Food (IUF), and also explores workplace injuries in the sector relating to machinery, tools, boats, vehicles, drowning, falls, electrocution, and bites. 

Welfare conditions and work-related factors that may contribute to ill-health were also included in the study, such as wages, housing, access to healthcare and transport. In addition, the team considered relevant global legislation, including national laws, international codes, labor practice guidance, and industry standards.

Many fish farming tasks are acknowledged to be dangerous, not least the fact that aquaculture involves working in or around water, and often working alone and at night compounds that danger. Hazards associated with offshore aquaculture are akin to those associated with commercial fishing and offshore drilling, while onshore aquaculture has the added issue of similar hazards to those found in agriculture, Patterson said. 

In addition to direct injury threats to workers, there is also a risk of occupational diseases. These are generally under-reported across the world, although it is acknowledged that aquaculture presents risks to health from working in the heat or cold, dehydration, work-related neck and upper-limb disorders, respiratory problems, allergies, parasites, bacteria from feed, skin issues, and hazards related to ingestion and inhalation. Additional problems have emerged connected to the impact of stress, long hours, evening and night shifts, and lone working.

The recent decision by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’ Committee on Fisheries to prioritize occupational safety and health (OSH) issues in aquaculture was the catalyst for the study, which is also funded by FAO.  Its comprehensive coverage includes national and continental profiles from around the world, from Africa to Australasia, and Europe to North America. 

“The report will include sections on occupational safety and health risk management in aquaculture and identify best practice including assessment, communication, mitigation, protection from and prevention of hazards and risks,” Watterson said.

It will also consider the costs of implementing OSH requirements, including who bears the costs of poor OHS, and the feasibility of adapting guidance documentation from other agricultural and food-producing sectors to aquaculture.

“Opportunities and constraints faced by small-scale, rural aquaculture farmers related to OSH risk management will be identified, as will further research and development needs on OSH in aquaculture, including information gaps relating to hazards and risks,” Watterson said.

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