What are the chances that a landlubbing Hoosier — one who had never even seen the ocean until spring break at ISU — would end up responsible for the safety of commercial fishing for the entire United States, not to mention assisting with television’s popular “Deadliest Catch?”
And in yet another twist of irony, she gets seasick.
A decade later, it all still surprises Jennifer Lincoln, probably more so than anyone else. Lincoln is an injury epidemiologist and director of the Alaska Pacific Regional Office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). She has worked there since graduating from ISU in 1991 with a degree in environmental health safety. She later went on to earn a master’s from University of Alaska-Anchorage and a doctorate at Johns Hopkins.
A native of Sullivan, Ind., Lincoln — back then, she was still Jennifer Wright — first traveled to Alaska when she took an internship after her junior year at ISU, working for the Indian Health Service out of Anchorage. She was charged with visiting native villages across south central Alaska to conduct environmental health surveys. She loved both the job and the area.
She also fell in love with something else there — a northern California boy named Phil Lincoln who was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base (now Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson). The two met while babysitting for a neighbor, Lincoln told Indiana State University Magazine during a recent telephone interview.
“It was his first summer in Alaska and it was of course my first time in Alaska. We ended up hanging out all summer, traveling everywhere we could. We would camp every weekend and just got to know each other that summer,” she said.
“…actually, I didn’t talk – I listened.” — Jennifer Lincoln
Wright returned to ISU engaged. She finished her degree, married Phil and moved back to Anchorage so he could complete his military stint.
As it happens an earlier internship — with NIOSH in Morgantown, W. Va., after her sophomore year — led the organization to think of Jennifer when it opened its Alaska Pacific Regional Office. They wanted to address the high rate of occupational injuries and fatalities in Alaska (five times higher than the national average). Lincoln had been a popular and productive intern in Morgantown, so when they learned she was moving to Anchorage they quickly recruited her to come work for them.
Lincoln is a fast learner and a good listener, both of which proved vital in her new job. “I didn’t know anything about fishing when I moved here,” she said. “I didn’t know the difference between a trawler and a troller, which are two different types of fishing vessels. So I started hanging out with a lot of Coast Guard people, started talking to a lot of fishermen. And actually, I didn’t talk – I listened.”
It wasn’t long before she ended up directing the office.
Taking the ‘Deadly’ Out of ‘Deadliest Profession’
When she moved to Alaska, she told her mother that she thought they would be there for maybe two years until Phil finished his assignment here.
“Well, Phil ended up getting out of the service, but we stayed in Alaska because we love it and I have a great job,” Lincoln said.
The bulk of her time at NIOSH is focused on identifying hazards in fishing, then working with industry to develop sensible safety programs to address them. According to NIOSH, commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. It involves hazardous working conditions, strenuous labor, long work hours and harsh weather.
In the period from 2000–2010, an annual average of 46 deaths occurred (124 deaths per 100,000 workers), compared with 5,466 deaths (4 per 100,000 workers) among all US workers. Lincoln is dedicated to changing that.
As such she has become the commercial fishing safety expert for Alaska and continues to expand her expertise and research to projects worldwide. She has testified before Congress and, due in part to her efforts, the death rate in Alaska from fishing accidents has dropped significantly.
Her style is to involve those who are most affected by her work — the fishermen themselves. Their collaboration has led to safety improvements such as an emergency shut-off switch for deck winches, which previously was a major industry hazard.
She explained, “I was looking at hospitalizations among commercial fishermen in Alaska and I saw that deck machinery kept coming up as the cause of these expensive injuries and hospitalizations. A lot of them were happening in southeast Alaska, so I went down there and held focus groups with fishermen in four different communities. I showed them the data and said, ‘This is what I’m concerned about, this is costing you a lot of money, this is resulting in very severe injuries to a lot of people. What should we do?’ “
“ Instead, there are more fishermen killed fishing for crab in Oregon, fishing for shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico or fishing for scallops in New England.” – Jennifer Lincoln
They all pointed to the hydraulically driven deck winch, in particular the type used on a purse seine vessel (a type of boat that uses a seine or net for harvesting fish). It wasn’t uncommon for a crewman to get his rain gear caught in the cable and be pulled into the winch, with no way to stop it as the power controls were located behind him.
“So the fishermen suggested we make something that would allow us to hit a button and stop the winch,” Lincoln says. “I ended up partnering with some NIOSH engineers out of Spokane, Wash., and a fisherman in Seattle who wanted to assist, and the three groups worked together to design this e-stop. Since then we have licensed the technology to a company in Seattle, and now fishermen can buy e-stop retrofit kits for their winches.”
She also convinced winch manufacturers to make the e-stop a standard on their product.
Lincoln’s research extends outside Alaska to circumnavigate the U.S. In fact, the “deadliest catch” doesn’t really take place in the Bering Sea any more, even though they have the television show, she said. “Instead, there are more fishermen killed fishing for crab in Oregon, fishing for shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico or fishing for scallops in New England.”
So her group is examining man-overboard alarm systems in the Gulf of Mexico’s shrimp fleet, “because when I looked at the data I found that the leading cause of fatality among shrimp fishermen were falls overboard, and the victims were usually alone on deck – there was somebody else on the boat, but they didn’t know the person had fallen in,” she explained.
In New England, she’s worked with lobstermen on entanglement prevention, developing ways to prevent them from getting caught in their trap lines and pulled overboard.
Yet another pet project is finding which type of personal floatation device (PFD) works best for which type of fishing, as one might be better for crabbing, while another type works best for salmon fishing, Lincoln explains.
The PFD is the best chance that a fisherman will survive if he falls overboard, but getting fishermen to wear them is a whole other story. “It’s like getting people to wear seatbelts in cars,” she said. So Lincoln is searching for the best safety device that simultaneously does not hamper the fisherman’s ability to get around and do his job.
Hanging with the “Deadliest Catch”
That’s how she became involved with the “Deadliest Catch.” For years, she provided data on lives lost, number of Medivac flights, etc., to the scriptwriters for the show.
“Sometimes I like the way that they use the information and other times it upsets me a little bit because they misrepresented it maybe a little bit,” she admitted. “Like, they’ll ask me about the total number of fatalities that have occurred in the Bering Sea, then they’ll present it like it’s all crabbing fatalities and that’s not always true. So I’ve gotten more specific to make sure that I’m providing exactly what it is they want.”
But she never actually watched the show, she admitted. “It was just a little bit too melodramatic for me,” Lincoln explains.
“Then I ended up meeting some of the guys on the show because I enrolled them in my PFD study. The crews on the Time Bandit, Wizard and the Cornelia Marie participated. They first did the safety survey that I conducted, then they wore the PFDs for me and evaluated them while they were working.
“I ended up starting to watch the show because I wanted to spy on them to see if they actually wore the gear that I gave them,” she said with a laugh.
“ “I think that for me, the story here is that this Indiana girl has created this amazing profession, this amazing career, and it all started at Indiana State.” – Jennifer Lincoln
And did they?
“Oh yes,” she answered. “Every time I saw the Time Bandit group, particularly Andy Hillstrand, he always had the PFD on that I had asked him to test. And the captain of the Wizard made a mandatory policy that everybody who works the deck has to be in a life jacket and it was because of that research study. There’s a $50 fine now if you go out on deck without a PFD on.”
In 2010, her efforts earned Lincoln the inaugural NIOSH Director’s Award for Extraordinary Intramural Science in the category of Early Career Scientist. Before her career is done, she is certain to earn many more kudos.
But that’s not what drives her. It’s the chance to save lives and prevent injuries that keeps Lincoln charged about what she does.
“I wake up every day and I can’t wait to get to work. I feel so fortunate that I have a job that I absolutely love,” she said. “And you know, it all started in Indiana. Going to school at Indiana State, getting involved in the field of environmental health, taking the safety classes, getting exposed to worker safety and health, and the environment and then really realizing that you can have a job — that a bachelor’s degree opens doors for you, and now you can go out and do this.
“I think that for me, the story here is that this Indiana girl has created this amazing profession, this amazing career, and it all started at Indiana State.”
Laurel Harper is a freelance writer in Louisville, Ky.