Over 37 years ago, I stepped off the helicopter onto the semi-submersible Bredford Dolphin to begin my career in the diving industry. I was a member of Sub Sea’s dive team ramping up for the season’s surface and saturation diving campaign on the Piper Alpha structure in the North Sea. A wide-eyed kid from the Dakota oilfields, I was convinced the saturation and surface diving systems we worked were nothing less than “state of art”, my team members were completely competent, thoroughly trained and proficient in their craft and our procedures were foolproof. We all looked up to and aspired to be that rare individual, the “super-duper-do-anything-you-can’t bend-‘em-deep-sea-diver”, the stuff of legends.
However, after working in a high risk industry for any period of time, one is certain to be exposed to the human cost: broken bones, lost fingers, career ending decompression sickness and more than a few fatalities. About a decade ago, I experienced a defining moment during the course of delivering a fatality presentation to a client. The client asked all the right questions we had expected and prepared for: how did the fatality occur, what was the root cause, what corrective actions were taken to prevent re-occurrence, and how were we sharing these lessons industry wide? And then he asked the presentation team, most of whom were ex-divers, a question we hadn’t anticipated. “What frightened you as a diver and does it still apply to today’s divers?” My unrehearsed reply was from the heart and to the point: As a diver, I was scared of screwing up, failing to complete my task, letting my team down and being thought of as the weak link on the team. I took risks which I would never tolerate in today’s industry, but at that time, they were tolerated, accepted and…even expected. And yes, that fear absolutely still applied to divers of that day a decade ago.
The profession of diving has a steady influx of new talent drawn by the allure of adventure, travel, and high pay for the coolest job ever. No one enters the profession anticipating an early departure but there’s a heavy turnover of disillusioned individuals who were not prepared for the hard work, family separation, adverse working environment and peer pressure.
The physics of diving haven’t changed over the decades, the physiology hasn’t changed (although we may understand it better), and the equipment, despite numerous incremental changes, remains basically the same. The major changes in diving have occurred in the field of safety culture, with much of this transpiring in the past ten years.
Recognition of their shared responsibility for the safety of divers working on their projects by several of the major operators has been a significant factor in this culture shift. While some operators continue to conduct their business as usual, believing the diving contractor is solely responsible for their activities as experts in their field, the majors have deliberatively moved forward with their agenda by engaging subject matter experts to develop recommended or general diving practices based upon and often exceeding those of the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADCI) Consensus Standards or International Marine Contractor’s Association (IMCA) guidelines. Requiring audited standards for the equipment, personnel fitness for duty, competency, training standards and certifications for dive crew members, they have raised the bar on professionalism for their contractors.
Organizations such as the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (IOGP) and the US Gulf of Mexico Diving Safety Work Group (DSWG) are actively evaluating high risk diving activities and releasing the output as industry best practices or guidelines to be followed. Most of these are readily available for interested parties to review on their websites.
Likewise, ADCI and IMCA have been raising the bar with their standards and guidelines. ADCI released their vastly improved Rev. 6 in 2011, and then improved it with Rev. 6.1 in 2014. IMCA guidance documents are constantly being reviewed and updated to account for changes in the industry. Again these documents are readily available for review on their respective websites.
The current federal diving regulations governing offshore operations were, for the most part, written before many of the current divers were born. 46 CFR 197 is being reviewed for a rewrite and the National Offshore Safety Advisory Committee (NOSAC) focus groups are actively engaged in drafting suggested verbiage and recommendations for the USCG to include in the rewrite. Expectations are high that this rewrite will be released for public review and comment in 2015. In addition, Safety and Environmental Management System (SEMS-1 & -2) requirements for the operators and contractors were imposed following the Macondo disaster. Most of these, such as Management of Change, Stop Work Authority, Job Safety Analysis, and others, were already adhered to by our industry, however, others had to ante up to continue to play.
While the industry’s safety culture has significantly improved from my origins, there’s still progress to be made. There will always be the pressure to perform and succeed which I felt 37 years ago, but I’m encouraged that the young divers of today recognize the pressure for superior performance includes safety awareness and involvement at the forefront .
Travis Detke MBA
Vice President of Operations
ADCI Gulf Coast Chapter Chairman