Every day before dawn along the Maine coast more than 6,000 lobstermen power up their boats, cast off moorings and head out. On any particular day they will winch up a small share of the two million lobster traps resting on the ocean floor.
Some 2,000 miles southwest, thousands of Caribbean lobstermen prepare for similar work--but they work under conditions that are far more dangerous as they are 20 times more likely to suffer injury or death. The American consumers' demand for seafood has brought two vastly different worlds together into a union of fatally different safety expectations.
This tale of two cultures is of interest to risk and insurance professionals in two ways. First, it reminds us of the fragility of occupational safety. Second, it suggests that highly visible American companies along the lobster supply chain, chain restaurants and food stores, are vulnerable to scrutiny even though many American companies with supply chains in developing countries have introduced special occupational safety and health programs.
The 600-mile long Miskito coast of Nicaragua and Honduras is an important source of foreign lobster product for the American restaurants and food stores. The majority of native households on the coast may receive most of their cash income from lobster fishing and processing.
Fishermen catch about half their harvest from scuba diving, which is three times as productive as the traps used in the United States to capture lobster. Trained entirely on the job, without regular checks of health or equipment, Miskito divers descend to depths of 100 feet or more to spear their catch.
Maine fishermen, by contrast, say their greatest occupational risk is wear and tear on the body from wrestling traps in sea-rolled cockpits. A Maine lobsterman dies at work about every other year. Along the Miskito coast, many diving injuries involve the "bends," or decompression sickness, acquired from too rapid an ascent. The long-term physiological effect is similar to stroke.
In a study released in 2002, the International Labor Organization estimated that about 10 percent of lobster divers incur permanent disabilities. The I.L.O. also estimated that about half incur some degree of decompression sickness.
The mayor of the Honduran city of Puerto Lempira, population 11,000, estimates that 1,400 injured divers live in the area. Along the entire coast, each year 10 to 15 may die?many times the fatality rate experienced in Maine. Injury and fatality rates are estimated using data from hospital records, operators of decompression chambers, and a global network of physicians.
In the past five years, the ILO, World Bank and National Geographic Society have concluded that there is no effective program for monitoring and reducing occupational risks for these workers.
THE CURSE OF THE SELF-EMPLOYED
Although Maine, Honduras and Nicaragua all have workers' compensation systems, Maine and Miskito Coast lobster fishermen are mostly self-employed and thus, not covered by workers' comp. Some Maine fishermen carry individual disability coverage but Miskito fishermen do not have access to their countries' social security systems or private long-term disability insurance.
Miskito divers, who can earn $500 a week, equivalent to a family's annual income, believe the risks are worth that kind of reward. And so do divers in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico and the Galapagos Islands.
"In Malaysia, they have divers from Thailand who dive for sunken logs in dams to average depths of 45 meters and at an altitude of 850 feet. They have horrific injuries, not dissimilar to the Miskito Indians," says Robert Wong, a physician in Fremantle, Australia, who has studied commercial divers living on the edge of life and death.
Even among the most developed countries, commercial diving has suffered very high injury and fatality rates. Wong recalls that in the '80s Australian pearl divers incurred high injury rates and several fatalities. An inquest was held, and the Department of Occupational Health & Safety of Western Australia engaged him as an expert witness.
"The coroner was going to close down the industry but they were given an option of adopting the standard dive tables or allow me to investigate the industry and advise on ways of modifying the dive practice. I got a research grant from the Fisheries Department, modified the dive profiles [risk of injury estimates] and changed the incidence of decompression sickness from over 40 percent to less than 0.01 percent.It was successful because of government enforcement," Wong said.
Two vignettes of Miskito coast diving highlight the width of the disability chasm facing divers in different countries. Ricardo was born in 1956 in Nicaragua and began diving for lobsters at age 11. Accidents in 1991 and 1999 left him a paraplegic. He was denied disability benefits. He died in 2001.
Tony, an American graduate student in psychology, dive trained in 2004 for several months on the Honduran island resort of Utila under impeccable safety controls, picking up an advanced diving certificate. He hopes ultimately to be authorized to perform forensic dives for local police in the United States.
Scheduled flights from the United States and Great Britain bring tourists to what is referred to as world class scuba diving on the cheap. The safety fanaticism of American and European diving circles in scuba resorts would make a corporate risk manager weep for joy. The safety records of dive schools catering to vacationers meet top standards. By law, the schools must offer free instruction to native residents, but the offers are rarely taken up.
A FOOD INDUSTRY HEADACHE?
Should the American restaurant and food distribution industries be concerned? At the very least, can dive-caught lobster product be at least tracked? The yields from the trap and diving harvesting channels quickly merge at coastal processing plants, such as on the Honduran island of Roatan, which extract the meat and freeze it for distribution in freighter holds. Ships, in turn, deliver their cargo to Miami and Port Everglades, Fla.
Miskito imports, which make up about a quarter of all frozen lobster imports, then blend with lobster meat from two dozen countries, including Brazil, the Bahamas, and Australia.
While the federal government has discussed requiring that the origin of imported seafood be disclosed to customers, the government will not require shippers to disclose how the lobsters were captured.
A Swedish project is currently under way as part of a 12-year effort to improve the health of workers in Central America. In addition, the ILO's Central American staff is alert to the lobster diver problems.
What can be expected of American restaurant and grocery chains in the way of monitoring the occupational risks of suppliers? Alice Tepper Marlin, of the New York-based nonprofit watchdog Social Accountability International, advocates routine audits of restaurants or food chains.
The food distribution industries should also differentiate between lobsters caught through two types of harvesting. Marlin noted that food producers like Chiquita and Dole, or retailers like The Gap and Timberland, comply with standards for their Central American operations.
PETER ROUSMANIERE, a Vermont-based consultant and writer, is also the workers' comp columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
March 1, 2005
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