Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Workplace Health and Safety Information—Agriculture, Forestry & Fishing

Northeast Drum Winch Safety Project


The Northeastern Winch Safety Research Program includes a qualitative survey of current practice and availability of safety equipment that exist on Commercial Otter Trawl fishing vessels in three high capacity fishing ports in the Northeast (New Bedford, MA, Gloucester, MA and Point Judith, RI). Working collaboratively with fishermen, we are trying to learn about the safety measures and equipment trawler fishermen currently use in an effort to find new and innovative ways to improve safety in an industry that faces many financial and safety challenges. Nationally, winches are responsible for a significant number (16%) of the onboard fatal injuries associated with gear entanglements (MMWR 2010).

Specifically, we are looking at two factors that could contribute to injuries and fatalities on trawlers in the Northeast. The first is the absence of a close-at-hand winch emergency shut-off switch, known in some ports as a PTO, and the second is the absence of a hydraulic level winder to replace the need for a crewmember to guide the cable manually onto the drum winch.

A large national study by NIOSH (Alaska Pacific Regional Office) showed deck winch entanglements responsible for 12 deaths from 2000-2009 with five of those deaths occurring from New Jersey to Maine, four in the Gulf of Mexico states and Florida and two in Alaska (Lincoln and Lucas, 2010).


This collaborative effort with fishermen in the Northeast area will lead to implementation and dissemination of safer equipment designs and approaches for primary and secondary prevention of winch entrapments. This research will have a direct impact on the safety of the Northeast fisheries, especially for the fishermen who adopt these safer approaches.


We have surveyed 54 captains using a qualitative in-person questionnaire to learn about the current safety environment and practices on vessels in the New England area. The following table shows the distribution of surveyed vessels across four ports.

Point Judith, Rhode Island
15 vessels
New Bedford, Massachusetts
15 vessels
Gloucester, Massachusetts
15 vessels
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
9 vessels

The location of the drum winch informs much of the safety practice around the winch. We found that when winches are located on pilot house deck, they are generally controlled centrally from the pilot house, and the use of crew to level wind cable manually is minimized and largely unnecessary. When the winches are located on the main deck, a crewman is often needed to manage the level winding of cable onto the drum winch especially if other safety equipment such as hydraulic level winders and PTO switches are not present. On the vessels that use crewmembers to level wind the cable manually, the winch controls are usually at the hauling station not in the pilot house. Please see Figure 1.

Figure 1 Chart

Comparison of Winch Control Locations with Use of Manual Level Winding
N=54 vessels surveyed

In order to obtain feedback on emergency shut-off and level winder designs, we have conducted focus groups with fishermen in Point Judith and Gloucester. Two more focus groups are planned. A local fisherman has provided a mechanical schematic for an emergency shut-off (PTO), and we are gearing up to have a marine fabricator build a model for a hydraulic level winder.

Future Efforts

The focus group discussions are designed to help us make equipment design and marketing decisions. Our next steps will focus on developing the marketing effort to introduce the chosen designs. NEC staff will develop the social marketing strategies we will use to promote adoption of the safer designs and approaches for trawler fishing.

Faculty and Facility

PI: Ann Backus (Harvard School of Public Health); Research Coordinator: Carmine (Joe) DeStefano (HSPH)

In partnership with Harvard School of Public Health: