Diving Deep into Danger – the need for commercial diving standards

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COMMERCIAL diving is a dangerous business — even in the course of a routine day’s work.

A study conducted in the United States found that the death rate associated with commercial divers is some 40 times the national average when compared with that of other workers.

The life of a commercial diver is certainly neither mundane nor predictable as, say, that of a salesman or banker. With a workplace located deeper under water than most recreational divers ever venture, commercial divers have little or no control over their work environment, and are largely dependent on the support of others way above them in the relative safety of boats and barges. Their work is challenging, requiring them to descend hundreds of feet below the surface to perform construction, inspection, repair, and salvage jobs on the world’s underwater infrastructure. This is why divers have a reputation for “living hard.”

photo credit : Mat Hieu
photo credit : Mat Hieu

The risks involved in commercial diving make it, simultaneously, one of the most dangerous and one of the most lucrative jobs in our local market. Daily risks include accidental drowning, developing respiratory and circulatory problems, and decompression sickness. In addition, many diving operators around the world have experienced unfortunate and even fatal accidents due to human error, equipment failure, bad weather, and often a combination of all three. Commercial divers are also exposed to work related hazards associated with cutting, welding, material handling, cleaning, and operating power tools way below the surface.

For an occupation with such high risks, creating safe working conditions can prove to be an immense challenge, especially since there is little control over the environment and sometimes constraints on physical resources. The key to managing these risks is proper planning, adequate training and the employment of relevant safety measures. While this may seem obvious, it cannot be overemphasised. Many diving accidents have occurred due to a lack of operational or safety planning. Compromising safety in such a high-risk environment could lead to serious accidents with negative, and sometimes fatal, consequences.

Our local energy sector is dominated by a relatively small number of multinational companies that, in turn, are supported by a large number of small service providers. For the larger companies outsourcing diving services, compliance to relevant safety standards is a major consideration in selecting a commercial diving operator. It is, therefore, essential that our local companies are knowledgeable and experienced in best practices when it comes to compliance with health and safety standards. Organisational commitment in this regard, not only makes good business sense, but also generally results in an increased level of confidence in the local diving industry.

photo credit: ARTHUR NORTHFLEET
photo credit: ARTHUR NORTHFLEET

In 1997, the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards (TTBS) issued a National Standard TTS 539:1997, Code of practice for safety in commercial diving operations, which was developed in collaboration with national stakeholders. More recently, stakeholders identified the need for a revised edition of the standard based on developments in the industry.

The new standard, which establishes minimum requirements for the safe conduct of commercial diving operations, is now nearing completion and should be issued for public comment within two months. As is customary in developing national standards, TTBS has constituted a Specification Committee, which includes the major stakeholders in the industry. The Committee comprises representatives from the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSH Agency), the Environmental Management Authority (EMA), the Petroleum Company of Trinidad and Tobago Ltd (PETROTRIN), Offshore Technology Solutions Ltd, Caribbean Diving and Marine Ltd, TrinDive Underwater Services Ltd, Hull Support Services Ltd, Underwater Works Incorporated Ltd, Seamar Divers Trinidad Ltd, All Dive and Marine, and REDS Caribbean Ltd.

The standard provides organisational and logistical requirements that apply to commercial diving operations. It does not apply to recreational and sport diving, commercial training facilities, and diving operations with one atmosphere (1 atm) equipment.

The standard is intended for use by a wide range of stakeholders but is primarily intended for diving contractors, their clients and employees; and regulatory agencies with the mandate for occupational safety and health.

The document provides specific requirements for jobs requiring the use of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA), surface supplied breathing apparatus, saturation diving apparatus, and diving in contaminated environments.

In addition, it specifies minimum general requirements for occupational health and safety including:

• emergency and maintenance procedures

• safety and risk management procedures

• quality assurance procedures

• diving project plans

• risk assessments

TTBS expects to host a Public Consultation later this year to allow stakeholders to provide feedback on the proposed requirements and to raise any concerns, comments and suggestions for improvement of the standard. The finalised document will then be incorporated into a compliance programme for subsequent enforcement by the appropriate regulatory agency.

Once developed, such a programme would play a vital role in ensuring that commercial diving activities are conducted in a safe and proper manner and that the safety of divers is paramount in this dangerous business.

Commercial Diver photo credit: David Szolc
Commercial Diver
photo credit: David Szolc

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