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Commercial Diving Accident

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 under sea, but also operating, lifting, and/or carrying machinery under water at the same time.

Tragically, 6 to 13 fatalities occur every year in relation to diving. This does not include the number of injuries that occur. 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 During a Commercial Dive?

Many commercial divers are employed by big oil and gas companies to work in the Gulf of Mexico and other areas so they can inspect and maintain oil platforms and deep water rigs. These structures are underwater, which begs the need for professional divers in the maritime industry. Many of those who are employed as divers in the oil and gas industry are new to the field and must be properly trained by their employers so accidents do not occur.

There are certain federal standards for commercial diving in order to ensure the safety of offshore divers. Those engaged in underwater operations face a totally unique challenge from other maritime workers. Complicated equipment must be used in order to support the divers while they are performing their job duties. If this equipment is not properly maintained, they could be seriously injured. They may also be injured by the workers operating the vessels above water. In the event that an offshore diver is in danger while performing his job duties, the necessary procedures must be taken. Workers must be properly trained as to emergency procedures in these situations.

Those who wish to work as commercial divers must be properly qualified and meet technical standards, have field experience, and have demonstrated proficiency in the field. Additional requirements such as First Aid and CPR training must be possessed by the diver. Divers must be supervised at all times by a qualified employee.

If you are injured and a supervisor was not present or did not meet qualification standards, you could be entitled to compensation. Being injured as a commercial diver in any number of circumstances may qualify you for a claim with the help of a maritime attorney from our firm.

Commercial Diving Regulations

Commercial divers are 40 times more likely to be killed on the job than all other workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, because commercial diving is listed as a "non-hazardous" work group, no formal regulations are in place to protect divers. With the continuous growth in oil and gas exploration, the number of commercial diving fatalities will continue to increase.

There are 5,500 to 7,500 commercial divers working at any given time. Despite this low number, the high percentage of deaths in the field of diving highlights the need for regulation and increased safety.

Basic safety requirements include the need for commercial diving persons-in-charge and diving supervisors to fully meet their responsibilities prescribed in the Code of Federal Regulation, 46 CFR 197 Subpart B. This government regulation represents the floor rather than ceiling with regard to safety requirements in this field. Further, the Coast Guard has yet to institute any safety regulations pertaining to commercial diving.

Where the federal government lacks, private employers should require more safety measures.

Prior to any commercial dive, any unusual hazards or environmental conditions likely to affect the safety of the diving operation should be fully explored. There should not only be instructions to report problems, but also a full reminder of what physical ailments divers could potentially face. Maintenance of the dive equipment is also crucial to safety. In addition to safety procedures and checklists, the assignments and responsibilities of each dive team member for each diving mode used must be clearly defined and adequately staffed.

Treatment protocols for any commercial diver injured on the job must also be in place prior to an emergency. As demonstrated in the all too frequent deaths, back up equipment is crucial in the event of an offshore accident. Considering the dangers associated with commercial diving, the difficulty with rescue operations, and the dangerous tools used by divers, such as welding equipment and explosives, the importance of safety cannot be overlooked.

Most Common Commercial Diving Injuries

Approximately 10,000 American commercial and government divers face a relatively high risk of serious injury or death while on the job. Some say that the existing diving safety standards enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) do not adequately reflect the advances in diving system technology and equipment. 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.

Common injuries associated with commercial dive accidents include the following:

  • Brain damage
  • Burns
  • Decompression illness or Caisson's disease
  • Gas embolisms
  • Head injuries
  • Hypothermia

What Is Dysbarism?

According to the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 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. Dysbarism may affect the human body in a variety of ways:

  • Gas Narcosis
  • Gas Toxicities
  • Pain
  • Decompression Sickness
  • Dysbaric Osteonecrosis

Gas 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 speaking, the severity of nitrogen narcosis is determined by the diving depth. Additionally, the symptoms of the narcosis are different depending on the level of submersion. At first, the diver may show signs of slowed reasoning ability. This symptom is usually suffered if the diver reached a depth of at least 100 feet. 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 inaccurately observe the world around him/her. At depths of 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, his/her 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. This symptom can be damaging and may occur while the diver is ascending from substantial depths or descending into the water. Decompression sickness (DCS) is identifiable by joint pain, altered skin sensations, dizziness, headache, loss of coordination, weakness, coughing, and painful breathing. Commonly, these symptoms are referred to as bends, staggers, and chokes. Sometimes, dysbaric osteonecrosis is diagnosed as DCS. Dysbaric osteonecrosis involves bone lesions. Typically, these lesions occur in the body's long bones. It is a chronic disease.

Taking Measure to Avoid DCS

Decompression sickness is the most common adverse health affect 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, individual 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 / descend cautiously. This may require safety stops every five metros or so. Additionally, divers should avoid doing hard work before diving 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, he/she will probably be treated with an oxygen mask. Additionally, divers suffering from DCS should be given a substantial amount of water. If the diver is unconscious, medical attention should be sought immediately. In order to plan a safe commercial dive, divers and their employers must take care to follow all OSHA guidelines related to commercial diving. Commercial diving can be safe when safety guidelines are followed.

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 include 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
  • Swabs
  • Tourniquet
  • 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.

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

  1. Improper Equipment Maintenance
    As one of the leading causes of commercial diving accidents, poorly maintained equipment plays a huge role in the safety of a commercial diver. The diver is directly dependent on the condition of the equipment for his / her 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.
  2. Inadequate Training
    This is another leading cause of commercial diving accidents, as well as of offshore accidents in general. While requirements for recreational diving are highly regulated, influxes in the offshore market can lead employers to rush vital training before sending the employee on a commercial dive. This lack of training can manifest itself in any team member of the diving staff, from the supervisor to the actual driver. Even one seemingly minor amateur mistake can put the rest of the team in danger.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Diving Support Vessel Accidents
    Diving support vessels are specialized offshore vessels that are used for professional diving practices. These vessels began to be used as available deck space on rigs lessened. Divers need a lot of room to operate because of their equipment. They also need necessary supervision. These practices are best conducted on one of these specialized vessels as opposed to the rig itself. One of the things that these types of ships are built to do is stay in one position; this way, they won't drift from the dive site. They do this by what is called a dynamic positioning function. Also included on these vessels is a saturation diving system. This has helium and oxygen in order to safely maintain a diver as they are under pressure. Divers are under increasing pressure the deeper that they travel under water. If anything goes wrong on one of these ships, the diver could be at risk for injury or death.

Diving Safety Measures

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.

Among the many pieces of equipment that divers use, some of the most essential are:

  • Buoyancy compensators (BCs), including secondary inflation
  • Diving Safe Practices Manual
  • Dry suits particularly those with variable inflation attachments and dumps
  • Face masks
  • Fins
  • Knives
  • SCUBA cylinders, including valves or manifolds
  • Regulators, submersible 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 built to ensure the operation is completed without negative 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
    The ROV supervisor 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.

  • Diver
    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.

  • Tender
    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. He or she must maintain an adequate supply of the correct breathing mixture to the diver throughout the operation. He or she 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 (a condition that arises from dissolved gasses creating internal air bubbles as a diver decompresses or rises to the surface).

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 diver operation takes place without incident or injury. Prior to beginning a commercial dive, a Job Safety Analysis (JSA) must be conducted.

As part of the analysis, the individual(s) must evaluate the health and safety aspects of the following:

  • Mode of diving
  • Condition and or presence of hazards at 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 travelling to high elevations that could negatively impact his or her health.

Contact Arnold & Itkin Today for Free Consultation

There are many types of offshore accidents; however, if you were employed as a commercial diver, you may be able to get help from a maritime attorney from our firm. At Arnold & Itkin, we are passionate about the rights of offshore workers and can help you if you have been injured in an accident. Beyond this, we can provide you with information and tips about topics such as selecting your commercial dive team and planning a safe dive. Depending on the circumstances surrounding your accident, you could be entitled to a claim under the Jones Act or some other type of maritime law. If you want help from aggressive attorneys who know the maritime field, call an attorney from Arnold & Itkin LLP today.

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