By Chris Gabel
It’s a cool day in February. An experienced commercial diver climbed down a ladder off a pier in Camden, N.J. He was dressed out in a heated dive suit and diving helmet to chip away at underwater piles of cement using a jackhammer. He was wearing 40 pounds of weight, allowing him to remain at 35 feet planted firmly to the bottom on that late February day. Then, something happened. The diver found that his surface air supply was no longer functioning. He tried to scramble to the surface, his tenders not knowing the subsurface events that were unfolding. The diver’s bailout bottle drained of air in the ensuing panic. What happened is still under investigation as speculation thrives. Was it a failed valve, could it have been an umbilical hose that bumped a control? Could it have been simply fate? Nothing is for sure except that this story is not unique.
A research study was performed by Aviat Space Environ Med. to observe the distributions of fatal diving accidents in commercial diver populations. Divers were observed in the Gulf of Mexico from 1968 to 1975 and in the British sector of the North Sea from 1971 to 1978. According to the study, “The most significant environmental factors were equipment failure and supervisor/tender errors. These factors would be minimized by improved selection, maintenance and operation of equipment, together with improved operating and emergency diving procedures.”
According to Duke University, there are approximately 1 in 100,000 dive accidents in recreational diving and 1 in 10,000 accidents involving commercial divers. In a separate recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that America’s roughly 3,000 full-time commercial divers tend to suffer an on the job death rate 40 times the national average for other workers. Commercial diving is a dangerous occupation; we all know and accept that fact. That said, we all sometimes come face to face with our worst adversary, complacency. The mundane repetitive task of pre-diving and post diving equipment starts getting abbreviated. That annual service on the helmet which has experienced 150 dives in the last six months gets pushed off another month because we can’t take it off line just yet.
So what’s the answer? Larger diving outfits can afford to buy redundant gear. Smaller diving contractors find it harder to afford that kind of overhead. How do we make an industry safer without involving more restrictions, regulations, and resulting in higher liability costs that increase insurance premiums and makes companies struggle? There is no all encompassing answer. What is known is that a major factor in many accidents is lack of proper maintenance and training. Not only training as it pertains to the operation of diving gear, but also the appropriate maintenance of that equipment. The first step to resolving this issue is to create company and personal policies that require that all pre-dive and post-dive check lists are completed. The next step is to identify potential hazards. Hazards such as a cracked air line, a malfunctioning mic and so on. Due to the liability issues that have cropped up in the last few decades, equipment manufacturers have painstakingly created warnings, check lists, manuals, and other documentation that helps the diver/tender and releases the manufacturer from the costly lawsuits that have plagued all industries. For example, the Kirby Morgan helmets now come with an electronic copy of the manual and various time sensitive (daily, monthly, and annual) checklists that are available at www.KirbyMorgan.com. The next part of the equation involves having your equipment serviced by reputable service centers. It should be a shop that has the training, certification, and qualifications to service the specialized gear that makes this industry what it is today. I have had the personal experience of walking in to sport diving shops with commercial equipment to hear comments like, “sure, I’ve heard of this, let me take it apart and see what I can do”. That never gave me the comfortable feeling that my expensive, and more dear to my heart, life sustaining equipment was being serviced by a qualified source.
Reputable service centers are out there and they are happy to serve the commercial diving community. The technology evolves rapidly. No longer are the days of working without standards. Thanks to organizations such as ADCI, OSHA, and the US Coast Guard diving regulations have improved the quality of life. With that, equipment manufactures have improved the reliability and quality of their commercial grade products. Divers are being better trained and exposed to more advanced tools all of the time.
Maintenance and safety need to work hand in hand with productivity. That can, and should happen. Working together, the service centers and diving contractors can make the industry safer, more productive and revenue generating. There has started to be a continuing commitment on all sides, the divers, the tenders, the diving contractors, and the service centers. Together we can make a difference.
Chris Gabel can be reached at CGabel@OceanEyeInc.com.