Preventing Hypothermia in Commercial Fishermen

What is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia (hy-puh-THUR-mee-uh) is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Normal body temperature is around 98.6°F (37°C). Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature falls below 95°F (35°C). Preventing Hypothermia in Commercial Fisherman is an important matter to understand given that those that work in fishereies are regularly exposured to waters below 70 degrees.

When your body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system and other organs can’t work normally. Left untreated, hypothermia can lead to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and, eventually, to death. [Source:  Mayo Clinic]

Preventing Hypothermia in Commercial Fishermen improves when we educate ourselves on what happens to the body when exposed to cold temperatures in and out of the water and take steps to prevent it.

Lobsterman Phil Mason Shares his Hypothermia Story

Russell Kingman

Fishing Partnership Safety Project Officer Russell Kingman answers questions about how commercial fishermen can prevent and treat hypothermia.

Why are commercial fishermen at risk for hypothermia?

Commercial Fishermen are at risk for hypothermia because their jobs leave them exposed to cold weather and the possibility of falling overboard when fishing; both exposures can cause hypothermia.


How can hypothermia be prevented?

A commercial fisherman’s survival suit is the best hypothermia prevention device as it provides insulation, warmth and flotation. A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is the next best as it affords a person waiting to be rescued the ability to conserve strength and heat by assuming the H.E.L.P (Heat Escape Lessening Posture) position.


What are symptoms of a hypothermic state?

A moderately hypothermic patient will exhibit signs of uncontrollable shivering. A severely hypothermic patient will not shiver but may be confused or delusional. He/she may even think they feel hot, when in fact they are extremely cold.


What are the effects of hypothermia?

As the body cools down, you lose the use of your arms and legs, which frequently results in drowning (if the hypothermia is a result of cold-water immersion). Hypothermia puts strain on the heart and can lead to cardiac arrest. Also, a severely hypothermic patient will show signs of cognitive confusion and should never be left alone.


What does hypothermia feel like?

Hypothermia begins with feeling very cold. The body shivers in an attempt to warm itself up. As hypothermia progresses, the victim becomes disoriented, and their behavior becomes erratic. They will lose all strength in their limbs.  A severely hypothermic patient may think he/she feels hot and begin to undress which would send the patient into deeper stages of hypothermia. This is why a hypothermic patient should never be left alone and his/her vital signs and behavior must be closely monitored.


How do you treat Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is an emergency – MedEvac the patient from the boat to get proper medical care. Make a MAYDAY call. A Coast Guard Medic can advise you how to treat your patient over the radio.

There are no “quick ways out” of a hypothermic state – it takes time. Hypothermic patients may not show signs of a pulse or breathing. Still, treat the patient! She/he may be revived. Check carefully for breath and pulse. If there is no breath or pulse, do CPR. If you need CPR and first aid training, take Fishing Partnership’s free CPR/1st Aid class! Learn more about CPR certification.

When treating a hypothermic patient, get the victim out of wet clothes and into a hypothermic wrap (hypo wrap) made with blankets and a tarp as the outer shell, which locks in heat. Keep the patient flat and treat him/her very gently. Stay with the patient to monitor behavior and vital signs.

When the person is rescued, even once wet clothing has been removed and she/he has been wrapped up in a hypo wrap, they are still cooling down internally, and it takes time for that cooling trend to reverse. One warming method is to microwave plastic bottles of water to a “warm tub temperature” (not hot) and place them under the arms and between the legs of the patient, while also using the hypo wrap to insulate the patient.

Never give a severely hypothermic patient alcohol. And do not try to “walk them around” to warm up. This can lead to cardiac arrest. The patient must remain wrapped up and lying down to begin to come out of hypothermia. The importance of treating the patient gently cannot be overstated.


What steps can a fishermen take to prevent hypothermia in a man-overboard?

If you don’t have a survival suit, wear a Personal Flotation Device! Water takes heat from your body 25X faster than air. If you have fallen overboard, you will be faced with the following:

  • If you ARE wearing a PFD, you will have a greater level of protection (and you can get into the H.E.L.P. position which further reduces heat loss).
  • If you ARE NOT wearing a PFD, you will have no choice but to tread water to stay afloat, which exposes your body to heat loss, leading to hypothermia.

As always, try to follow the “Stay” rules: Stay warm, stay dry, stay with the boat.


Fishing Partnership has a rebate program to help commercial fishermen get 50% off a PFD!

Fishermen who take Fishing Partnership’s Safety and Survival training [SST] practice donning a survival suit, which gives them the best protection. They also learn about the wide range of PFDs they can wear while working on a vessel that can protect them and keep them afloat if they fall overboard.

Those that take our SST class are eligible for a 50% rebate when they purchase a PFD. Contact a Navigator to learn more and sign up for one of our SST courses.


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