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Deaths Associated with Occupational Diving -- Alaska, 1990-1997

During 1989-1997, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recorded 116 occupational diving fatalities in the United States (OSHA, unpublished data, 1998). * During 1990-1997, nine persons in Alaska died in work-related diving incidents (four were investigated by OSHA); only one had training beyond a recreational diving certificate, and three lacked any certification. In response to concerns about adequate training of occupational divers in Alaska and recent public inquiry, CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reviewed the nine occupational diving fatalities in Alaska. ** This report describes three of these incidents, summarizes the results of the review, and provides recommendations to improve the safety of commercial diving.

Case Reports

Case 1. In July 1996, a 24-year-old commercial fisherman with no diving certification used scuba gear while attempting to clear a fishing net wrapped around the propeller of a fishing vessel. He became entangled in the net and was unable to free himself. Other crew members were unable to assist because they had no diving gear. He was retrieved approximately 3 hours later, and no attempt was made to resuscitate him. The scuba tank still contained an adequate amount of air. The cause of death was drowning.

Case 2. In October 1996, a 32-year-old certified recreational diver with minimal experience was harvesting sea cucumbers using surface-supplied air in approximately 40 feet of water. After approximately 1 hour, the tender *** lost sight of the diver's air bubbles. The diver did not respond to a recall signal, and the tender pulled him to the surface. His air regulator was not in his mouth, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was unsuccessful. Inspection of the dive gear indicated it to be fully operational, with no obvious defects. The cause of death was drowning, but the specific cause of the incident was unknown.

Case 3. In September 1997, a 47-year-old experienced commercial diver who had made no dives during the previous 2-3 years used scuba gear while attaching a mooring line to a buoy anchor line. The equipment was not in good condition, and both the primary and alternate regulator were leaking and in need of repair. Shortly after he submerged, the tether line floated to the surface. After he was signaled without response, the team leader put on scuba gear, submerged, and found the diver on the sea floor with a weight belt on and both tether line and tank high-pressure hose severed. The diver was recovered, and CPR was unsuccessful. The investigation did not determine how the hose was severed, and the cause of death was listed as drowning. OSHA cited the employer for violations including inadequate training in using tools/equipment and in CPR, absence of a ready standby diver, diver not line tended, lack of a reserve tank, and rescue not conducted in a timely manner.

Summary of Cases

All nine of the diving fatalities in Alaska occurred in males aged 19-47 years (median: 25 years). Three were harvesting sea cucumbers, three were diving to clear tangled lines or nets from fishing boats, two were conducting vessel-related activities (i.e., hull inspection and anchor attachment), and one was a U.S. Navy diver undergoing training. Six divers were using scuba gear, and three were using surface-supplied air. Three deaths were attributed to equipment failure, two to entanglement in lines or nets, one to exhaustion of air supply, and three to unknown causes. None of the divers had an adequately prepared standby diver, the three divers using surface-supplied air and one scuba diver were line tended, one diver was accompanied, and one diver carried a reserve air supply.

Reported by: Div of Safety Research, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Of the 116 occupational diving fatalities reported by OSHA for 1989-1997 (13 deaths per year), 49 (five per year) occurred among an estimated 3000 full-time commercial divers (OSHA, unpublished data, 1998). The average of five deaths per year corresponds to a rate of 180 deaths per 100,000 employed divers per year, which is 40 times the national average death rate for all workers. This group, which accounts for most of the commercial dive time underwater, includes divers involved in construction, maintenance, and inspection of vessels and structures such as oil rigs, bridges, and dams. The remaining 67 deaths occurred among workers who were not full-time divers; these include seafood harvest divers, search and rescue divers, scientific divers, dive instructors, and nonmilitary federal agency divers. NIOSH's National Traumatic Occupational Fatalities database reported 56 occupational diving deaths for 1989-1994 (11 deaths per year) (CDC, unpublished data, 1998); causes of deaths listed most often for divers included drowning (73% of cases), asphyxia (14%), and embolism (7%). Other causes included trauma, hypothermia, and late medical complications, but hypothermia and air embolus may be underestimated because of difficulties in diagnosing these conditions.

During the 1990s, dive fisheries have expanded in response to increasing demands for sea urchins, sea cucumbers, geoduck clams, abalone, and other products harvested by diving. In Alaska, the number of permits for dive fisheries has increased 950%, from less than 59 in 1987 to approximately 628 in 1995 (1). Many permit holders make only one or two trips yearly (1), and no evidence of experience or training is required to obtain a permit. In addition to dive harvesting, Alaskan divers often assist in untangling lines and nets from boat propellers. These divers are often sport divers who solicit such work, but also may be crew members with little or no training in the use of dive equipment.

Drowning was listed as the official cause of death for all the cases in this report. Although the circumstances of the incidents are known in most of the cases, specific causes could not be determined for three cases. Lack of experience and possibly panic were mentioned as contributing factors in several cases. Lack of a reserve air supply contributed to the one death from exhaustion of air supply and perhaps others.

The findings in this report illustrate a pattern of fatal incidents associated with inadequately trained divers; only one diver with commercial dive training has died in Alaska since the 1960s (G. Cleary, Alaska Divers and Pile Drivers Union, personal communication, 1998). No commercial or fishery-related dive training is available in Alaska. In 1994, CDC reported six fatalities among commercial divers in Maine during 1992-1993 and identified insufficient training as an important contributing factor in the incidents (2). The fatal diving incidents in Maine resulted in legislation in 1993 to require specific training of sea harvest divers before they are licensed (2). The 3-day course covers first aid/CPR, operations management, emergency procedures for tenders and divers, and advanced dive tables **** and physiology. From 1994 (when this legislation was implemented) to 1997, only two dive fishery-associated fatalities in Maine were reported (1). Similar training requirements for dive-fishing permits should be considered in all states that have this industry; recreational diving certification is not sufficient training for commercial diving activities.

Divers performing work-related diving activities should understand and follow standard diving precautions (i.e., those recommended by OSHA and the U.S. Coast Guard {3,4}), including 1) developing familiarity with equipment and safety procedures, 2) avoiding diving without a "buddy" or being line tended, 3) avoiding diving without an available backup diver, and 4) carrying reserve air supplies. Equipping vessels with shrouded propellers (to reduce net entanglement), propeller clearing ports, or line cutters on the propeller shaft would reduce the need for divers to untangle nets and lines.

Additional information about diving is available from the Association of Dive Contractors, telephone (281) 893-8388; the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, telephone (907) 747-3287; e-mail amsea@ptialaska.net; or from the World-Wide Web site http://www.ilo.org/public/english/90travai/sechyg/idhind01.htm.

References

  1. University of Alaska Sea Grant. Alaska diving safety. In: Workshop Proceedings of the Alaska Sea Grant College Program. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Sea Grant, 1997; report no. 97-03.

  2. CDC. Fatalities associated with harvesting of sea urchins -- Maine, 1993. MMWR 1994;43:235,241-2.

  3. Office of the Federal Register. Code of federal regulations: occupational safety and health standards. Subpart T: commercial diving operations. Washington, DC: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration, 1977. (29 CFR 1910.400).

  4. Office of the Federal Register. Code of federal regulations: marine occupational safety and health standards. Subpart B: commercial diving operations. Washington, DC: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration, 1989. (46 CFR 197.200).

* This includes all diver deaths that had an employer/employee relationship, regardless of training level or dive-relatedness, except those involved in search and rescue, training, and government work. Self-employed divers are not subject to OSHA regulations and are not included.

** Data about diving fatalities were obtained from OSHA, the National Traumatic Occupational Fatalities database, and the Alaska Occupational Injury Surveillance System maintained by NIOSH, Division of Safety Research Alaska Field Station.

*** A person who remains aboard the dive boat and supports the diver underwater -- for example, operating the air compressor, maintaining lines, or monitoring for signs of diver distress or danger.

**** Dive tables are used to determine the maximum safe time and depth limits for divers to avoid developing decompression sickness from accumulation of excess nitrogen in the body.




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