The story behind the statistics

Apr 21st, 2014

Janet Harron

The story behind the statistics

The Discovery Channel’s Cold Water Cowboys showcases Newfoundland fish harvesters doing what they do best but, according to sociology professor Dr. Nicole Power, the risks the producers focus on aren’t the real story.

“According to my research, there is a real culture of safety among fish harvesters,” said Dr. Power, who has been working on issues related to the fishery for her entire career, including an MA on processing workers and a PhD on fish harvesters.

Dr. Power says much of the research on fisheries safety takes a quantitative approach, looking at statistics around fatalities, search and rescue incidents and other high risk incidents.

“I’m interested in what’s behind the numbers and what that means.”

As opposed to the high-risk culture assumed with many male dominated professions, Dr. Power found that fish harvesters were having to deal with a very different context of fishing. 

She explains that after the cod moratorium fish harvesters moved into deep water fisheries which necessitated moving further from shore, for longer distances, and for longer periods of time.  And the deep water fishery entails more gear and a tremendous amount of rope. According to Dr. Power, who, along with a team of researchers, talked to over 100 fish harvesters about fishing risks and safety, they were doing this while fishing from boats designed for the ground fishery and were trying carefully to adapt.

“I found that risk was a structural feature of the everyday work environment.”

“The regulatory and environmental context they were negotiating was very different from what they were used to,” said Dr. Power who notes there was a spike in search and rescue incident in the 1990s. “Rather than a lack of safety we found that new fishing grounds and vessel design have to some extent created ‘inexperienced’ harvesters – they might have an expert knowledge of a particular fishery but have had to move into a new area or use new technologies.”

Dr. Power’s interest in fisheries communities then lead to researching another high risk group – young people.

An increase in attention to occupational health and safety and workplace-related health issues of young workers has been fueled in part by public concern that younger workers have higher rates of injury and accidents than adults.

As part of her work with the Community-University Research for Recovery Alliance initiative (funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada), Dr. Power and colleagues examined the limited and restricted options rural youth had in terms of employment and what mitigating risks might be involved.

“They are working in a context where everyone knows everybody which means that they want to prove themselves and might be unlikely to ask for help or to complain about a job being particularly dangerous or risky,” said Dr. Power.

She explains that while young people know a lot about health and safety, they also lack control in their workplace and are faced with limited choice in terms of the availability of jobs. Add in power imbalances and gender divisions around labour and Dr. Power found that young people were at risk for different kinds of workplace incidents.

“Municipalities apply for summer job funding and we found that girls are given certain kinds of work, such as dealing with customers and boys end up doing heavy lifting, that sort of thing,” said Dr. Power. “Young women are more likely to deal with issues around harassment and young men face a greater risk of physical injury.”

All this leads up to Dr. Power’s current work as a co-investigator with the national research study On the Move where she is looking at the issue of young people and apprenticeships.

“Through On the Move we’re linked to another national group. That group just submitted a LOI for a big grant and we have received approval to go on to the next stage. Once that is confirmed we will be able to include the health implications for mobile apprentices and gender dimension in the On the Move project.  That’s at least a year away now,” said Dr. Power.