By David Helvarg
Commercial diving may be romantic, but our track record for safety lags far behind that of Europe. Do we need tougher regulations?
Sixty feet below the water’s surface off Key Largo, the Aquarius, the last underwater science habitat in the world, was caught in a maelstrom.
As Hurricane Gordon’s churning waves battered the giant yellow cylinder, Aquarius was reduced to auxiliary battery power. Worse, its generators had shut down and one had caught fire.
As the ailing vessel devoured its remaining power, those inside began a risky climb to safety up a rescue line to a 50-foot catamaran on the ocean’s surface. “A few times I thought the boat was going to go over,” recalls veteran diver Craig Cooper, who was on the scene at the time. “Six of us would grab the divers out of the water and power back up before the wave took us. We used everything but gaff hooks, hauling those guys out of the water like tuna.”
Commercial diving is, by anyone’s account, a dangerous business. Whether you’re engaging in underwater salvage and construction, inspecting offshore oil and gas rigs, operating marine science stations, or hunting for sunken treasure, you are at the mercy of a hungry ocean. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that America’s roughly 3,000 full-time commercial divers suffer an on-the-job death rate 40 times the national average for other workers.
Fortunately, in the case of the Aquarius, the entire crew of scientists and divers escaped from the 1994 hurricane, but not all deep-sea divers are so lucky. Cooper, a big sun-reddened man, is pensive as he recalls close friends and colleagues he’s lost in the murky deep. One of them, who was killed some 20 years ago, was a buddy diving with Cooper when the Ixtoc oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
“No method to the madness”
Obviously, humans are not made to breathe under water, but even when relying on complex, often bulky, breathing equipment, commercial divers are still subject to every whim of the turbulent aquatic environments. The cold saps your strength, the currents can be torturous, and visibility is often bad. As if that weren’t enough, you have to watch out for mud, sand, sharks, and stinging flora and fauna, not to mention potentially deadly hyperbaric pressures.
As many nondivers may remember from watching actor Lloyd Bridges writhing or doubled up in agony in the 1960s television show “Sea Hunt,” hyperbaric pressures are a serious threat. As a diver descends, the increased pressure from the water causes his breathing gas (usually compressed air) to be absorbed into his body tissue at a higher rate than occurs on the surface. Then, as he ascends to the surface of the ocean, the pressure decreases and nitrogen is released into the bloodstream and tissues. The rate of ascent as well as the depth and total diving time determine the nitrogen load. If the diver hits the water’s surface too quickly, too much nitrogen can flood the body, leading to the serious, sometimes fatal, decompression illness known also as “the bends.”
A recent study by Swiss researchers suggests that divers who have a relatively common heart defect known as a patent foramen ovale, or PFO, are more likely to get the bends. A small opening between two chambers of the heart, PFOs occur in about a quarter of the population. The defect is usually harmless; however, divers with PFOs get the bends four and a half times more than those without the defect, according to the study. Swiss researchers advise that a diver with a PFO can help prevent the bends by avoiding dives with frequent depth charges and by not diving below 131 feet.
“It’s a hazardous profession, no doubt,” says Frances Stepp, President of the National Association of Commercial Divers (NACD). Stepp notes that the Coast Guard is working to bring its 1978 regulations into alignment with the standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but even the inadequate rules currently in effect are only sporadically enforced.
Moreover, many accidents take place offshore, which allows unprincipled or reckless administrators to cover up accidents. “While the companies are supposed to notify authorities within 24 hours, by the time inspectors get there the shifts have changed and parts have been thrown overboard,” Stepp complains. “There’s no method to the madness.”
Safety lagging behind that of Europe
Work safety has improved in recent years with the introduction of superior diving medicine, more hyperbaric chambers in hospitals, and robot submarines to use in tackling some of the deepest, most dangerous work in the offshore oil industry. Still, 14 U.S. divers died on the job between July 1999 and July 2000.
Meanwhile, European divers in the North Sea boast far fewer accidents and fatalities, despite waters that are far colder and more treacherous than those of the Gulf of Mexico. Stepp attributes this to stricter standards and enforcement by British and Danish companies as well as the government agencies that oversee them.
Nonetheless, U.S. regulation of the industry is better than it used to be, says Jerry Gauthier, an ex-diver and current president of the Association of Diving Contractors.
“Back in the late ’60s it was anything goes,” Gauthier says. “People were killed and it was a lot riskier industry.” To make his point, he cites voluntary industry standards, which he says have improved safety. These include crew size, (“at least three guys, a diver, a rescue diver and communications man for every job”); better equipment, including a stand-by air hose and bail-out bottle (emergency air supply) for each diver; and improved dive-tables, which reduce the risk of the bends.
Not surprisingly, the National Association of Commercial Divers is pushing for tougher U.S. regulations, including a national standard for training and certification of divers, more mandatory (rather than voluntary) safety requirements, and accurate record-keeping on industry accidents and fatalities so that divers can learn from predecessors’ mistakes. (Commercial divers are now listed under OSHA’s “miscellaneous” labor code that includes dozens of low-risk cottage industry jobs, including home tax-preparers and flower arrangers.)
Tips for diving safely
ð Keep healthy and fit.
ð Know the OSHA and US Coast Guard safety standards for commercial diving operations by heart. It’s in your best interest to follow them at all times.
ð If conditions at your work site are dangerous or not in compliance with current diving standards, talk with your employer. If this doesn’t work, contact your local OSHA or Coast Guard office.
ð Avoid alcohol and other drugs before, during, and after diving.
ð Don’t dive when you’re ill.
ð Maintain high levels of hydration by drinking enough water.
ð Let other divers know which companies are interested in diver protection and which appear to be more interested in the bottom line. Share information through the National Association of Commercial Divers or other networks.
ð Studies suggest that divers in their 40s and older have a greater risk of decompression sickness, so be especially careful while ascending if you’re in this age group.
ð Avoid the motion-sickness drug dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) before diving. Recent research from a University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania team indicates it may impair your memory and performance underwater. The researchers recommend pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) instead.
Many older commercial divers have gone on to expand their roles in the industry by making the transition to work site supervisors, pilots of remote operated vehicle (ROVs), and even company officials. Their presence provides a wealth of experience that’s proving good both for the contractors and their divers in the water.
“Experienced divers know you can’t always just muscle stuff underwater,” says Cooper, who is operations director of Aquarius. “You have to use your mind, not just your muscles.”
David Helvarg is the author of the upcoming book, Blue Frontier: The Fight to Save America’s Living Seas. His last book was The War Against The Greens.
National Association of Commercial Divers
Association of Diving Contractors International
Diving Medicine Online
Commercial Dive Safety Organization 425/883-3500
www.safedive.com [Defunct Site]
Center for Disease Control. MMWR Weekly. Deaths Associated with Occupational Diving.
June 12, 1998; 47(22); pp. 452-455.
Emergency Diving Medicine. Diving Medicine Online.
Diving Accident Fatalities. Diving Medicine Online.
Schwerzmann M, Seller C et al, Relation between directly detected patent foramen ovale and ischemic brain lesions in sport divers. Swiss Cardiovascular Center Bern and University Hospital, Annals of Internal Medicine 2001, Jan 2; 134 (1):21-4 Reviewed by Robert L. Goldberg, MD, FACOEM, the 84th president of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and a leader in Internet healthcare education.