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OFI Module I-4 Research on Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) fisheries governance: From risk communication to emergency response in marine contexts

by Joshua Ryan, Alexandria Major (OFI Module I-4 Master’s Students) & Dr. Emily Reid-Musson

(OFI Module I-4 Postdoctoral Fellow) 

Life ring in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, 2016; ©Mirella Leis. 

Research by postdoctoral and graduate researchers in OFI Module I-4 is focusing on key issues in OHS fisheries governance, from prevention and risk communication to incident and emergency response. They approach OHS fishing challenges from their respective disciplinary backgrounds. Dr. Reid-Musson is a human geographer and qualitative social researcher by training, Joshua Ryan is a mechanical engineer who grew up in an outport fishing community and Alexandria Major is also an engineer who completed her bachelor's degree in Ocean & Naval Architectural engineering at MUN.


Preventing and mitigating fishing risk: The marine forecast as a key safety tool for small-scale commercial fish harvesters

by Dr. Emily Reid-Musson


The marine forecast is one of the most important tools that small-scale harvesters use to manage risks of fishing in the North Atlantic, where weather is an ever-present hazard. Harvesters access various forms of weather information - including Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) marine forecast, various ‘wind apps’, and through observation and discussion– on an almost constant basis in figuring out how, where and when to fish. But weather forecasting as a form of risk communication is not often examined within fisheries OHS, and very rarely from a qualitative and social lens. Building on previous research at MUN, our research within OFI Module I-4 addresses this gap by asking fish harvesters about how they access and interpret marine weather resources, and by asking marine forecasters about their own processes and challenges in predicting marine weather and communicating weather risks.


We developed a community-engaged research process to develop relevant questions and findings based on stakeholder needs, in partnership with ECCC and the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia. We were also able to adjust our sampling, research tools, and interview questions depending on emerging themes. One of the tools we used during semi-structured interviews with harvesters and forecasters was for participants to engage directly with different weather prediction products to better understand how people used these products and what features they found useful. Interacting with the products provided higher-detail responses from participants. For example, some harvesters preferred point-based forecasts whereas others relied on graphical, zone-based displays.


We also learned about unique approaches developed in the lobster industry to help manage and avoid dangerous weather conditions on lobster season openings, when vessels are heavily loaded with traps. There is a high degree of anticipation about trap setting, and weather in late fall can be particularly treacherous. The decision-making process around openings to the lobster seasons is harvester-led, informed by an operational meteorologist who delivers a tailored forecast directly to harvesters on a conference call in the days preceding the openings. With Dr. Joel Finnis and Dr. Barb Neis, we recently submitted an article on these findings for publication.


Incident and Emergency Response: Evaluating the Performance and Usability of Personal Locator Beacons in Harsh At-Sea Conditions

by Joshua Ryan and Alexandria Major


The Transportation and Safety Board of Canada has reported that deaths within the fishing industry in recent years were due to a lack of floatation and emergency signaling devices. Emergency signaling devices such as personal locator beacons (PLB) are used to notify nearby search and rescue (SAR) agencies that people are in distress and that an incident has occurred at sea. A PLB is a handheld (and wearable) emergency radio transmitter that is manually operated by the person who is in distress. They are designed to give notification of an incident and to provide the location of the survivors who are wearing the devices/in the close proximity of those who are wearing them. They are used in many applications both onshore and offshore and aid in saving many lives during emergency situations. Our research within OFI module I-4 aims to examine the performance of PLB radio signal transmission in harsh conditions as well as examining their usability in harsh conditions where the user may have reduced dexterity due to cold-water exposure. 

We have completed at-sea trials to examine the performance of PLBs in December 2019 on the Marine Institute’s vessel the MV Inquisitor. These trials were completed over a five-day span with six trial runs being completed. These trials were completed using varying brands of PLBs attached to a rescue mannequin, along with sensing equipment that would normally be found aboard rescue vessels. This created a mock search and rescue situation for the mannequin in the water. From these trials it was found that the sea-state (how rough the sea is) has a small effect on the detection distance of the PLBs when transmitting their local distress signal but it does not have the same effect on the global signal transmission. Other factors such as the orientation of the PLB antenna were analyzed but they did not show any significance in increasing or decreasing the detection distance between the PLB and the ship. From this, we can assume that a PLB would function quite well in harsh conditions. This would lead us to highly recommend that any fisherperson who goes to sea should be wearing a personal locator beacon, since this may be the difference between a successful rescue mission and an unsuccessful one. 

We are also examining whether there are usability issues with PLBs for emergency situations where a person’s manual performance might be degraded by exposure to cold water. The usability of PLBs during harsh conditions can be a determining factor between a successful or unsuccessful rescue mission. Harsh conditions such as frigid air temperatures and cold-water can significantly impact a person’s hand dexterity and tactile sensitivity. These factors are pertinent to the operation of a PLBs which would be manually activated by the wearer. In order to investigate the influence of a cold environment on an individual's ability to activate a PLB, a set of standardized tests will be used to determine manual dexterity and tactile sensitivity. In addition, specific tests will be developed and implemented to determine the ideal PLB design features to improve useability. The main findings will hopefully allow us to gain knowledge on the impact of cold and wet hands on an individual's ability to successfully activate a personal locator beacon and whether certain design configurations of the beacons would be more advantageous for a successful activation (button characteristics, button size, button texture). These signaling beacons and understanding their application as a piece of critical safety equipment for fish harvesters in emergency situations is very important. It is anticipated through our research that we will be able to provide useful and new information to manufacturers, users, trainers as well as regulators on ways to improve PLB usability.

Building on previous research at MUN, our research within OFI Module I-4 addresses this gap by asking fish harvesters about how they access and interpret marine weather resources, and by asking marine forecasters about their own processes and challenges in predicting marine weather and communicating weather risks.

- Dr. Emily Reid-Musson, OFI Module I-4 Postdoctoral Fellow

Our research within OFI module I-4 aims to examine the performance of PLB radio signal transmission in harsh conditions as well as examining their usability in harsh conditions where the user may have reduced dexterity due to cold-water exposure. 

- Joshua Ryan & Alexandria Major, OFI Module I-4 Masters' students

Written by Joshua Ryan, Alexandria Major, and Dr. Emily Reid-Musson

Dr. Reid-Musson is a human geographer and qualitative social researcher by training, Joshua Ryan is a mechanical engineer who grew up in an outport fishing community and Alexandria Major is also an engineer who completed her bachelor's degree in Ocean & Naval Architectural engineering at MUN. Their research is funded by Ocean Frontier Institute's  research module I-4.

© 2019 by OFI Governance

Emily Reid-Musson