Diving Safety: We’re All In

By Sean Sheldrake and Alan Humphrey

Our previous blog posts have featured how EPA diving scientists support cleanups in the nation’s waterways.  In this post, we talk about how our divers stay safe through the development of safe practices and standards, well before they hit the water, so that the best science is delivered safely.

Sometimes things go wrong

We’ve all heard about a diver fatality at one time or another in the news, and such tragedies are particularly hard hitting when it is a colleague.  The dive community is a close knit one, and these tragedies hit close to home.  A diver’s death brings us together to grieve and—perhaps more importantly—to learn.  Are human factors the source of what occurred or should our safety rules be changed so we don’t have a similar event? We work to prevent repeating mistakes, and avoiding future tragedies. “Near misses” are evaluated for safety protocol improvements as well.

Peer groups make the difference

EPA Diving Control Board

The diving control board meets to discuss safety.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Standards for scientific diving, scientific divers must operate under a “diving control board” that meets regularly to update their standards for recent safety issues.  Annually, the control board meets to discuss safety incidents that occur with military, commercial, or scientific divers and determines how to change the diving rules to keep us safe.

Beyond our own control board, we look to other “standard setters” in the dive industry.  The American Academy of Underwater Sciences, Association for Dive Contractors International, and others develop standards that exceed basic OSHA requirements.  Indeed, this type of diving safety peer review is part of the reason why the data suggest scientific diving is among the safest forms of diving (Dardeu et. al., Diving and Hyberbaric Medicine, 2012).  Developing “best practices,” such as sharing critical information across the profession is key for working safely in such an unforgiving environment!

Always learning

Divers learn early that their training never ends.  In addition to learning from diving accidents and standards of industry, the board disseminates critical new information to divers on the ground.

Deputy unit diving officer Chad Schulze demonstrates a new first aid oxygen delivery system.

Deputy unit diving officer Chad Schulze demonstrates a new first aid oxygen delivery system.

Though the demands of the underwater environment are relatively static, technology changes much of what we know about the effects of pressure on a diver’s body.  Sifting through new research, changing dive rules, and informing working divers about new practices is the control board’s number one job in keeping EPA divers safe.

EPA’s diving culture is all about safety.  Every diver can refuse to dive for any reason, and every divemaster can call off a dive.  Not only have each of us aborted more than one dive, we often gauge newer divers most on their concern for safety. Have they considered not diving due to a cold, an equipment issue, or just a feeling that the stars are not completely aligned? That’s what we want. Whether it’s conditions, equipment, or anything else, we all work together to pursue our underwater science safely.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

About the authors:  Sean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  He and Alan Humphrey both serve on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements.  In addition, they both work to share contaminated water diving expertise with first responders and others. 

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