Diving Accident Attorneys

Representing Injured Commercial Divers Nationwide

Almost 10,000 workers are employed as commercial divers, government divers, and sea harvesters in the United States, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). As an important part of the offshore industry, commercial diving is extremely different from recreational scuba diving. The work not only involves diving, but also operating, lifting, and/or carrying machinery under water at the same time.

Commercial divers are 40 times more likely to be killed on the job than all other workers, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As is the case with much of the offshore industry, commercial diving comes with a number of inherent risks. This is simply due to the nature of the work required. However, a majority of these accidents are preventable. The sobering reality is that, if employers and job site managers enforced more stringent observance of federal and state regulations and other safety protocols on diving jobs, many of these accidents and injuries wouldn’t happen at all.

Have you been injured or lost someone you love in a commercial diving accident? Contact Arnold & Itkin to learn more about your legal rights and options. 

Table of Contents

Commercial Diving Regulations

Commercial divers, often employed by major oil and gas companies, play a vital role in inspecting and maintaining oil platforms and deepwater rigs, particularly in areas like the Gulf of Mexico. These divers face unique challenges distinct from other maritime workers, necessitating specific federal standards for safety.

The nature of their work requires specialized equipment to support their underwater operations. The maintenance of this equipment is crucial; any negligence can lead to severe injuries. Furthermore, the risk isn't limited to underwater hazards; divers can also be endangered by vessel operations above water. In emergencies, workers must be adept in executing safety protocols to ensure the well-being of the diver.

To work in commercial diving, individuals must meet stringent qualifications. This includes technical training, field experience, proficiency demonstrations, as well as First Aid and CPR certifications. It's also mandatory for divers to be supervised by qualified personnel at all times.

Annually, 6 to 13 commercial divers lose their lives, a concerning figure given that only 5,500 to 7,500 divers are active at any given moment. 

The high fatality rate underscores the pressing need for stringent regulations and enhanced safety measures. Despite commercial diving being categorized as "non-hazardous", it lacks formal protective regulations. As the oil and gas sectors expand, fatalities in commercial diving might rise, making safety regulations even more imperative.

The Code of Federal Regulations, 46 CFR 197 Subpart B, outlines basic safety requirements for commercial diving. It's essential to view this as the floor for diving safety, not the ceiling. Currently, the Coast Guard has not set any regulations specific to commercial diving, leaving a void that private employers should fill by instituting robust safety measures.

Before any diving operation, potential hazards and environmental conditions affecting safety must be thoroughly assessed. Divers should be well-informed not just about possible equipment failures, but also potential health risks. Proper maintenance of diving equipment, clearly defined roles for each dive team member, and established treatment protocols for injuries are crucial. Considering the dangers associated with commercial diving, the difficulty with rescue operations, and the dangerous tools used by divers, the importance of safety cannot be overlooked.

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Commercial Diving Injuries

Professional commercial divers face major dangers every day. They place their lives in the hands of boat captains, dive supervisors, and other offshore workers while diving. The slightest mistake made by any co-worker can cause catastrophic personal injuries or wrongful death. Deep-sea diving with a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus can cause a variety of medical problems that can be fatal if not treated promptly.

Commercial divers may experience the following injuries:

  • Decompression sickness ("the bends")
  • Barotrauma
  • Hypothermia
  • Oxygen toxicity
  • Nitrogen narcosis
  • Drowning
  • Ear and sinus injuries
  • Pulmonary over-pressurization 
  • Arterial gas embolism
  • Cuts and abrasions from marine life or equipment
  • Broken bones or fractures
  • Electric shock (from underwater equipment)
  • Infections from contaminated water
  • Stings or bites (from jellyfish, sharks, etc.)
  • Crush injuries from falling objects or equipment
  • Hyperbaric oxygen toxicity
  • Traumatic brain injury from rapid ascent 
  • Brain damage from equipment failure

Dysbarism & Decompression Sickness

Commercial divers face a multitude of unique health and safety hazards. Dysbarism refers to an adverse side effect suffered by divers who are exposed to rapid changes in air pressure. Often used interchangeably with decompression sickness, dysbarism actually covers a broader set of disorders.

Dysbarism may affect the human body in a variety of ways, causing:

  • Decompression sickness (DCS)
  • Barotrauma
  • Arterial gas embolism (AGE)
  • Nitrogen narcosis
  • High-pressure neurological syndrome (HPNS)
  • Oxygen toxicity
  • Carbon dioxide toxicity
  • Inner ear decompression sickness
  • Mask, tooth, or sinus squeeze
  • Pulmonary over-pressurization syndrome (POPS)

Nitrogen narcosis is the result of nitrogen dissolving into the nervous tissue. This type of damage is usually sustained when the diver is more than 120 feet underwater. Generally, the severity and symptoms of nitrogen narcosis are determined by the diving depth. After reaching a depth of at least 100 feet, the diver may show signs of slowed reasoning ability. At 150 feet, the diver may experience joviality and slowed reflexes. At 200 feet, the diver may be subject to a euphoric state, the inability to concentrate, and drowsiness. At 250 feet, the diver may experience confusion and inaccurate observations. At 300 feet, the diver may become stupefied and lose perceptive faculties. 

Gas toxicities are caused by oxygen and carbon dioxide. When a diver is exposed to rapidly changing ambient pressure, their brain and lungs may become damaged by oxygen. This condition is symptomized by coughing, substernal soreness, and pulmonary edema.

Sometimes, divers experience pain as a result of expanding or contracting trapped gasses in the body. Decompression sickness is identifiable by joint pain, altered skin sensations, dizziness, headache, loss of coordination, weakness, coughing, and painful breathing. These symptoms are often referred to as bends, staggers, and chokes. Sometimes, DCS is diagnosed as dysbaric osteonecrosis, typically characterized by lesions in the body's long bones. It is a chronic disease.

Taking Measures to Avoid DCS

Decompression sickness is the most common adverse health effect suffered by divers. Although it is unpleasant, mild forms of DCS can be treated at the dive site and individuals who suffer from it usually recover fully. In some cases, individuals suffering from DCS will need treatment in a decompression chamber, sometimes called a hyperbaric or recompression chamber. To avoid DCS, divers should avoid making more than three dives per day. Additionally, they should ascend cautiously, taking deep stops and safety stops as needed. Divers should also avoid doing hard work before or immediately after diving and should be in good physical condition. Divers should avoid changing altitudes (such as flying in an airplane) for 24 hours after a dive.

Dysbarism Treatment

If a diver suffers from DCS, they will probably be treated with an oxygen mask. Additionally, divers suffering from DCS should be given a substantial amount of water. Medical attention should be sought immediately. To plan a safe commercial dive, employers must take care to follow all OSHA guidelines related to commercial diving. 

Medical Care for Injured Divers

Medical care for divers is essential, both in completing regular exams to quickly diagnose any issues and in providing on-site care if an incident should occur. Every dive site should have a first-aid kit and an emergency oxygen delivery system. 

On-site medical kits should include the following:

  • Ace bandages
  • Ambu bag
  • Bandages
  • Betadine, iodine, or another disinfecting solution
  • Burn dressings
  • Gauze pads
  • Oxygen cylinders
  • Pocket mask
  • Resuscitator with elder valve
  • Splints and tourniquet
  • Swabs
  • Waterproof tape

Divers should also be required to undergo a physical exam before their first dive, at least once each year, and after any surgery or injury. This exam can quickly catch any adverse issues that may pose a hazard while diving or any symptoms that have developed as a result of diving.

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What Causes Commercial Diving Accidents in the U.S.?

Like most offshore incidents, diving accidents can be attributed to specific instances of negligence or wrongdoing, often in attempts to prioritize production and profitability. When safety is not put first, commercial divers pay the price.

Some potential causes of commercial diving accidents include:

Improper Equipment Maintenance         
The diver is directly dependent on the condition of the equipment for their safety and health. Every piece matters—from hose connections to helmets. Unfortunately, the lack of disciplined maintenance by vessel owners and operators has led to many cases of dangerous equipment deterioration, which in turn threatens the health and safety of divers.

Inadequate Training         
This is another leading cause of commercial diving accidents, as well as of offshore accidents in general. While requirements for commercial diving are stringent, influxes in the offshore market can lead employers to rush vital training. This lack of training can manifest itself in any team member of the diving staff, from the supervisor to the actual driver. 

Pressure Differentials         
When operating, repairing, or installing machinery underwater, there are many factors that must come into consideration. Pressure behaves much differently underwater as opposed to on land. Differentials occur when the pressure on one side of an underwater structure—such as a pipeline—is greater than the pressure on the other side. Because of the lack of caution concerning this, divers have been trapped by suction intakes, pinned against structures, and have even lost limbs or sustained other major injuries. Diving near newly installed structures requires heightened caution.

Underwater Fires         
While the risk of electrocution when using heat underwater seems as if it would be minimal, cutting or welding near a closed compartment can cause the trapped gas to ignite. The best way to prevent this from happening is to make sure to cut holes first before proceeding to apply heat near the chamber.

Diving Support Vessel Accidents         
Diving support vessels are specialized ships used for professional offshore diving operations. These vessels became popular as space on oil rigs for diving activities diminished. Divers, with their extensive equipment and need for close supervision, operate more effectively from these vessels than from rigs. A key feature of these ships is dynamic positioning, allowing them to maintain a steady position and not drift away from the dive site. They also come equipped with saturation diving systems, providing a mix of helium and oxygen to safely support divers under high pressure. 

The deeper the divers go, the greater the pressure they face. Any malfunction or issue on diving support vessels can pose serious risks to the divers, including potential injury or death.

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Diving Safety Measures

Commercial diving risks can be mitigated when shipowners and maritime employers implement appropriate safety measures. The inherently dangerous nature of diving, like all offshore work, is no excuse for any accidents or injuries that may occur—as these can be traced back to some form of negligence or wrongdoing in nearly every instance.

Maintaining equipment is an important step in preparing for every dive, and every diver relies on many pieces of safety equipment to protect them when venturing below the ocean's surface:

  • Buoyancy compensators (BCs)
  • Diving Safe Practices Manual
  • Dry suits with inflation attachments and dumps
  • Face masks
  • Fins
  • Knives
  • SCUBA cylinders, including valves or manifolds
  • Regulators
  • Pressure gauges and depth gauges
  • SCUBA tending lines (when applicable)
  • Surface supply diving helmets
  • Surface supply umbilical lines
  • Watches
  • Weight belts

Federal regulations require that two-way communication be established between every diver and divemaster so that any issues can be effectively conveyed. Divers can use a wide range of methods to convey messages or emergencies, including electronic communication, hand signals, line tugs, and underwater air horns.

Choosing an Appropriate Team for a Commercial Dive

Before embarking on any commercial dive, an appropriate team must be put together to ensure the operation can be completed safely and without incident. 

Most commercial dive teams should include individuals playing the following roles:

Diving Supervisor         
The diving supervisor is in charge of planning and executing a diving operation and is responsible for the safety and health of the dive team. While on duty, the supervisor must be immediately available to implement emergency procedures and remain ready to respond to emergency conditions. The dive supervisor is also responsible for creating and implementing the dive plan, assigning duties, and verifying the qualifications of each team member.

ROV Supervisor         
If a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) is being used, the team must include an ROV supervisor. This person has to plan and execute the ROV operation and is responsible for the safety and health of the ROV team. The ROV supervisor bears the same responsibilities as the dive operator, except in relation to the ROV.

The diver is assigned specific tasks to be done both at the surface and underwater. The diver must be at least 18 years old and must have completed a formal commercial diving course of instruction. They must complete all assigned tasks.

ROV Pilot/Technician         
A person who has begun the training process to become an ROV supervisor. The pilot/technician should be prepared to take on the duties of the ROV supervisor in the event of an emergency.

Standby Diver         
A designated individual at the diving station who is ready to enter the water and assist a stricken diver.

The tender assists the diver in dressing and undressing, confirms that the diver's equipment is functioning properly, tends the diver's umbilical cable (the cable which supplies him or her with breathing gas from a surface supply), performs routine equipment maintenance, and stays on alert to immediately report potentially hazardous conditions.

Life Support Technician         
The life support technician is in charge of analyzing gasses to be used in the dive prior to embarkation. They must maintain an adequate supply of the correct breathing mixture to the diver throughout the operation. They must also record gas consumption data, assist in the maintenance of all dive equipment, and report any unsafe conditions to the diving supervisor. The life support technician must be certified in first aid and CPR and must also know how to diagnose and provide emergency care for decompression sickness.

Planning a Safe Commercial Dive

The commercial diving industry offers numerous job opportunities. The oil industry needs divers for offshore exploration projects. Civil engineering projects involving construction on bridges, harbors, and dams all require commercial divers. Media outlets often employ commercial divers to obtain high-quality underwater footage. Whatever the position, commercial diving can provide an excellent opportunity for employment, so long as appropriate safety precautions are taken prior to embarking on a dive. 

The International Association of Diving Contractors has established specific procedures to ensure that every commercial dive takes place without incident. Before a commercial dive, a Job Safety Analysis (JSA) must be conducted. The health and safety of the following must be evaluated:

  • Mode of diving
  • Condition and/or presence of hazards at the surface and underwater
  • Breathing gas supply, including reserve tanks
  • Available thermal protection
  • Diving equipment and systems
  • Specific tasks assigned to each member of the diving team
  • Relative competency and health of all team members
  • Decompression and treatment procedures
  • Emergency procedures

Once a JSA has been completed, each member of the diving team must be briefed on their assigned tasks, the safety procedures appropriate to their diving method, any unusual conditions they are likely to encounter, and any deviations to be made to standard dive procedures based on situations unique to the upcoming dive. Upon completion of the dive, each diver's physical condition should be examined, and any signs of physical or psychological problems should be reported to the appropriate authorities. Each diver should also be made aware of post-dive activities, such as flying or traveling to high elevations, which could negatively impact their health.

Contact Our Diving Accident Attorneys for a Free Consultation

If you were injured while working as a commercial diver, a maritime attorney can help. At Arnold & Itkin, we are passionate about the rights of offshore workers and can help you if you have been injured in an accident. Depending on the circumstances, you could be entitled to a claim under the Jones Act or another applicable maritime law. 

If you want help from attorneys who know the maritime industry, contact Arnold & Itkin.

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