Commercial diving is a dangerous maritime job. Unlike recreational scuba diving, this career doesn’t typically involve pretty tropical reefs or calm, clear waters. Instead, much of commercial diving is related to underwater construction work or oil rig work, which means using a lot of heavy, big equipment. Even for trained and experienced divers, this is risky work and accidents, injuries, and even fatalities are possible.
Besides the equipment and construction conditions in which they work, commercial divers spend a lot of time under water with all the inherent risks drowning, hypothermia, circulatory problems, and poor visibility. If you work as a commercial diver and have been injured in an accident, know your rights and the compensation to which you are entitled.
The Dangers of Commercial Diving
Any kind of diving involves risk, but work on commercial dive boats and when diving is especially dangerous. Recreational divers may face risks from being underwater for too long, ascending too quickly, or even from sharks and other harmful animals. However, recreational divers don’t take these risks every day, they don’t handle big equipment, and they don’t work in construction zones or in turbulent water with low visibility.
All of the risks associated with diving are multiplied for those who dive every day for work. They spend most days underwater and do a variety of different kinds of jobs. Divers may work for law enforcement investigating crime scenes and looking for bodies, as underwater photographers, or on academic teams excavating underwater archaeological sites. Most commercial divers, though, do much dirtier, more dangerous work.
Common types of jobs for commercial divers include working on oil rigs, constructing underwater pipelines, diving at coastal nuclear power plants, or constructing and maintaining bridges, harbors, or hydroelectric dams and power plants. Some workers dive for crustaceans and shellfish in murky and dangerous waters. All of these jobs require taking daily risks on the job, including exposure to toxic chemicals, working with power tools and other equipment, working in low-visibility conditions, and experiencing equipment malfunctions.
Common Injuries and Illnesses
Diving carries inherent risks, no matter what job is being done or the conditions in the water. Divers can suffer from a number of conditions and symptoms related to pressure and gases. These include gas narcosis, which can occur on especially deep dives, gas toxicity from oxygen and carbon dioxide, decompression sickness, which occurs sometimes after ascending, pain from expanding gas in the blood or lungs, and something called dysbaric osteonecrosis, a condition that causes lesions on the bones.
In addition to these illnesses related to diving, commercial dive workers may suffer accidents from not being properly trained for the work they do or the equipment they are using. They may also be injured when coworkers are not sufficiently trained or when safety training has been lax or safety equipment missing or broken. Even trained workers can have equipment accidents such as burns from welding equipment, cuts or injuries from collisions with propellers or dive boats in murky waters, or injuries resulting from equipment that has not been properly maintained.
Examples of Diving Accidents
There are only between 5,000 and 8,000 workers in commercial diving in the U.S. at any given point in time, but for this small number there have been a disproportionate number of accidents. In one incident a commercial diver collecting geoduck in the Port of Seattle died from lack of oxygen. He was pulled from the water and CPR was administered, but he died later in the hospital. The diver had a diving partner and was an experienced diver, and yet he became tangled in the breathing tubes that provided him with oxygen. Exactly how it happened is not known, but the incident illustrates how any kind of diving can be risky.
In another diving accident a man died while diving off the coast of New Jersey in cold, winter waters. Diving partners found the man’s body on the seafloor and there was no obvious cause of death. This accident further illustrates just how dangerous diving can be, and how even with the right equipment and training, diving means taking a risk.
Negligence in Commercial Diving Accidents
If you work aboard a commercial dive boat and work as a diver you have protection under federal maritime law, especially in cases of negligence. Your employer has a responsibility to take all reasonable precautions to keep you safe while you work. This means providing you with adequate training for the work you do as well as proper safety training. You are also entitled to the appropriate equipment, both that needed to do your job as well as safety equipment. Your employer must keep that equipment maintained and in working order. Your employer also has to make sure that all workers get adequate break time and are not working in conditions that are unreasonably hazardous.
When any one of these responsibilities is not met, no matter how minor it may seem, an accident can happen. For example, if you work a longer shift than you are supposed to because your boss is pressuring you to get the job done you could have an accident due to fatigue. This type of accident involves negligence.
Your Rights to Compensation
If you are injured during a dive you have the right to compensation, whether negligence played a role in the accident or not. If you qualify under the Jones Act and you can prove that negligence played any role at all in the injury, you can claim compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. If you work on an oil rig you may qualify for compensation, regardless of negligence, under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. If you work in a harbor you could qualify under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. Any of these may also provide compensation to your loved ones in the unfortunate event that you die on the job.
If you find yourself faced with a denial of compensation for your commercial diving accident, you need the help of an experienced maritime lawyer. A professional can guide you through the often-confusing process of filing claims and even going to court.