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Health care barriers steep for Downeast fishermen

A pilot study from the University of Maine at Machias found that Down East clammers and lobstermen face steep barriers to health care access, despite greater risks of job-related injuries and other health issues . Tora Johnson, the study’s lead author and an associate professor at UMaine Machias, said “It’s pretty clear from the results here that harvesters are struggling to treat pain, and they experience a lot of it, and they get minimal help from the health care sector in treating that pain appropriately.”

In 2021, there were around 2,000 fishermen in Washington County and 1,700 in Hancock County, according to state data. The vast majority fish for lobster, with softshell clams a distant second. Most harvesters the team surveyed reported sustaining an injury while fishing in the preceding year. Especially common were back, neck, shoulder, arm and hand injuries, which could include frostbite, cuts and abrasions, or problems from falls or repetitive motions.

Fewer than a third of harvesters surveyed said they visited a medical practitioner or received a prescription to treat on-the-job injuries. Seventy percent of the harvesters reported actively avoiding going to a doctor, primarily due to high costs or a lack of free time.

Certain kinds of injuries depended on the fishery, Johnson said. Lobstermen appeared more at risk of falls and injuries from heavy gear on their vessels or could get hurt by rope or spiny bait. Clammers tended to suffer from frostbite or neuropathy, which causes pain and tingling in the extremities.

Johnson plans to get industry feedback on her research at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in early March at Rockport. She hopes to work with state officials and advocacy groups on potential injury prevention programs, insurance reforms and other new resources.

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