Oceans of Opportunity

scientific diving – a value add

As my career has evolved, I’ve found myself involved in progressively more challenging environments to work in and under – part of this has been out of personal interest, and part has been out of necessity to take science forward [and deeper]. This pursuit brings out one critical and common thread which needs to be central to every program, project, and individual dive…safety.

As a Dive Safety Officer for a variety of organizations and institutions, I’ve been behind the scenes for the organization and management of well in excess of 10,000 scientific dives, and probably 3-4x’s that for cumulative working dives across sectors. This role, when done correctly, is a delicate balance of facilitator and safety director. On one hand, we very much want the work to carry on (so we all have a job), and on the other hand want it to take place safely so impose restrictions. To achieve this balance, particularly within the confines of an institution, is both challenging and rewarding.

Too often, adopting ‘standards of practice’, is viewed as a bureaucratic roadblock. I view it as an opportunity. In the United States, the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) provides us, as scientific divers, a means to maneuver through the complex world of bureaucratic regulatory compliance to operate efficiently, and safely. Through peer-review, It also provides a voice for those operating in the field, in communicating the critical nature of this work on the ground to administrators and gradually working towards change. A community wide demonstration and track record of safety provides a unified voice justifying the advancement of our technologies and techniques within this occupational sector – taking human intervention, and thus the ocean sciences, to new depths. Strong leadership in the area of dive safety does indeed mitigate risk, AND is also a fundamental element in program development across all of the host institutions’ undersea interests. Future capabilities to explore and conduct science underwater are virtually unlimited. Demonstration of continued safety is the key to access new areas of undersea interest.

Scientific diving can at times involve complex operations and underwater tools conventionally associated with commercial diving. Stromatolite excavation in Bahamas, Photo by R. Ginsburg RSMAS 2000.

Ensuring safe operations is only possible with proper, and recurring training and proficiency. Scientists and students that can operate efficiently and safely underwater, as a result of proper training, have a better appreciation for the potential to integrate advanced methodologies in scientific diving, and thus have an increased capacity to evolve and advance their fieldwork…where the ocean sciences start. Structured dive programs provide the backbone for such training, and ensure a level of operation and performance that far exceeds more ‘recreational’ type diving.

Q: What is scientific diving and how do I become a scientific diver?

I get this question all the time, and the short answer is that there is no magical c-card that makes someone a scientific diver. Scientific diving, by its very definition, is an occupational activity, meaning you are diving as part of your employment (be it faculty, staff, student, technician, other). This employer-employee relationship is defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and diving as part of one’s employment is strictly regulated. Scientific diving is exempt from strict commercial diving regulations, presuming the employer has adopted several essential elements in managing its local program.

According to OSHA 29 CFR 1910 Subpart T (1910.401), scientific diving means diving performed solely as a necessary part of a scientific, research, or educational activity by employees whose sole purpose for diving is to perform scientific research tasks. Scientific diving does not include performing any tasks usually associated with commercial diving such as: Placing or removing heavy objects underwater; inspection of pipelines and similar objects; construction; demolition; cutting or welding; or the use of explosives.

Workplaces doing these types of dives are required to follow the OSHA guidelines for this activity, where OSHA 29 CFR 1910 Subpart T App B (Guidelines for Scientific Diving [50 FR 1050, Jan. 9, 1985]) call for the following program elements:

  1. The Diving Control Board consists of a majority of active scientific divers and has autonomous and absolute authority over the scientific diving program’s operations.
  1. The purpose of the project using scientific diving is the advancement of science; therefore, information and data resulting from the project are non-proprietary.
  1. The tasks of a scientific diver are those of an observer and data gatherer. Construction and trouble-shooting tasks traditionally associated with commercial diving are not included within scientific diving.
  1. Scientific divers, based on the nature of their activities, must use scientific expertise in studying the underwater environment and, therefore, are scientists or scientists in training.

The consequences of not following any OSHA regulation can result in steep fines, hiked insurance premiums, and most importantly a compromised safe work environment for an organization’s most valuable asset – your people.

So, what’s involved in maintaining a scientific diving program? The simple solution is to work to those four points above. In the US, the AAUS serves as a membership organization [of organizations] that have adopted a community consensus standard that meets the OSHA exemption and provides detail on elements of a scientific diving program. Generally speaking, a program operating under the auspices of the AAUS provides some process to partake in 100 hours of scientific diver training and maintain a baseline of administrative and practical requirements that, collectively, provide the basis for being a ‘scientific diver’. This isn’t a ‘certification’ per se, rather completion signifies experience in niche underwater skills and techniques that are universally recognized within the scientific diving community. When implemented properly, this training goes well above and beyond recreational structured diving courses.

The skills of a highly trained scientific diver range from project design, to data gathering, to basic engineering, to operating efficiently under high degrees of task loading, to complex in situ problem solving, to rescue diving skills. These skill sets hold value in all areas of life, and lessons learned in the field cannot be matched elsewhere. Even working as a commercial diver day-to-day, the skills acquired as a scientific diver are used daily, and provide a value add and competitive advantage in this field.

I greatly value my investment into personal training, and the people who made it possible along the way. The ability to achieve a task, and get something significant done in environments that most will never see is the ultimate reward. Holding others to the high standards that sculpted our generation is so very necessary to advance this niche community, ensure safety, and pass on the knowledge and experience needed to step ever closer to a new life in the sea.

interested in establishing a new scientific diving program, or auditing an existing one? Our consultancy business can provide expert services in this field. Contact us today!.

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