Among the various health risks commercial divers expose themselves to during the course of work, nitrogen narcosis is one of the most problematic. Professional divers in various disciplines are at risk for this condition, with effects that could range from mental impairment to death, depending on how deep underwater the diver ventures. When operators train their workers for missions, they should include any risks that might be specific to their work.
According to a 2009 article in Dive Training, the early stages of narcosis can start when a diver is submerged as little as 33 feet, in which case they can experience euphoria and impaired reasoning. Going deeper leads to gradually more disruptive symptoms, including hallucinations and increasingly extreme emotional responses. Some physical symptoms can manifest, such as changes in physical appearance at the 300 feet or deeper level.
The way breathing nitrogen in a pressurized environment affects diver psychology has been compared to being drunk by multiple sources. In an interview with The Georgia Straight, professional diver Sherri Ferguson says that narcosis could also be linked to heart failure in some circumstances.
“We want to see if diving itself has an effect on the heart that’s causing some kind of arrhythmia,” Ferguson said. “It places much higher stress on the heart than we figured. If we can get that information out to physicians and individuals, we can help avoid those cardiac events.” She also notes that cardiac problems can happen in divers no matter how old they are when they take on a job, from their 20s to middle age.
When such risks can appear somewhat suddenly and impact even experienced divers, operators should consider comprehensive commercial diving insurance.