Urgent action on risks to aquaculture workers needed, study finds

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Professor Andrew Watterson, Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at University of Stirling

Health and safety within the global aquaculture industry is widely overlooked – despite the sector posing a great risk to workers, according to University of Stirling-led research.

The project found the world’s estimated 18 million aquaculture workers regularly contend with “highly hazardous” conditions and workplace injury and disease risks are high.

While some aquaculture workers are highly trained and in secure jobs globally, most are from vulnerable populations in precarious work, including women, indigenous people, children, seasonal workers, migrant workers, rural and remote workers.

Unfortunately, occupational safety and health (OSH) hazards may at times also be associated with other labour exploitation issues, such as forced labour, child labour, debt bondage, discrimination, and denial of rights to association and collective bargaining negotiations and labour agreements.

However, it added that “many risks remain either neglected or unaddressed” due to gaps in knowledge, as well as limited independent analysis of prevention and risk reduction strategies.

Professor Andrew Watterson, of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at Stirling, coordinated the project, involving a number of international partners. He presented the findings during a keynote speech at the International Fisheries Safety and Health Conference, in Canada, today.

Professor Watterson, of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, said: “Our research found many gaps in our global knowledge of the working conditions of the world’s 18 million aquaculture workers; the hazards they face; the injuries and diseases they suffer; and the risk management systems used to protect them.

“Independent analysis of prevention and risk reduction strategies adopted is limited. This emerges in all the national and regional profiles compiled for this report.”

He added: “Aquaculture occupational health and safety is frequently marginalised or lost by government, industry and sometimes labour organisations. This contrasts with the wider importance and funding given to production, cost, food safety, sustainability and wider environmental issues within the sector.”

The research also found that the human, social and economic toll of poor health and safety within the industry is either known to be or likely to be “considerable” for workers directly through occupational injuries and illnesses, and indirectly through low wages, long hours, job insecurity and poor welfare and social security.

Launched in December, the desk-based project looked at issues along the primary aquaculture supply chain, in marine and freshwater locations. The report includes discussion of the hazards of stock-holding units like ponds, racks and cages – as well as feeding, harvesting, processing, and transport of produce. It also explored workplace injuries in the sector relating to machinery, tools, boats, vehicles, drowning, falls, electrocution and bites.

Despite the gaps in knowledge, the team found that, in some parts of the world, practical solutions now exist to remove or reduce many sectoral risks.

“Policies and practices based on good regulations, monitoring and enforcement underpinned by effective industry, community, and labour engagement, research and knowledge transfer appear to have been successfully adopted in some countries and some production systems,” Professor Watterson said.

The study found codes on occupational health, human rights, and “decent work” programmes from the International Labour Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), of the United Nations, could be effective ways of addressing and raising weak standards.

Professor Watterson said: “These programmes, if linked to relevant ministries – such as labour, health and social security – may be able to contribute to progress.”

He added that successes identified included: (i) workforce OHS agreements with European aquaculture companies operate in developing countries such as Ghana; (ii) extension services work well in some US states; (iii) technological innovations and hazard assessment in Norway linked to regulation, (iv) Canadian technology innovations have succeeded in reducing hazardous exposures, (v) changed South African occupational health and safety management have improved practices, (vi) Scottish and UK tripartite body initiatives have improved knowledge exchange.

The team included Lissandra Cavalli, from Brazil; Mohammed Jeebhay, South Africa; Rebecca Mitchell, Australasia and New Zealand; and Barbara Neis, Canada.

The project was funded by the FAO of the United Nations, and administered by the International Union of Food, Workers.

Background information

Media enquiries to Greg Christison, Communications Officer, on 01786 466 687 or greg.christison@stir.ac.uk.