Occupational vs Recreational Diving

Defining the Difference

Diving is a high risk activity. People have adapted to living in air and at one atmosphere of pressure. All divers operate in a non-respirable environment and risk drowning and injury or death from a number of diving maladies caused by vastly increased underwater (hyperbaric) pressure.

It should be noted, however, that a significant percentage of diving-related drowning fatalities occur at or near the surface – risk does not simply equate to depth.

Both recreational and occupational divers are subject to the same immutable laws of physics, have the same physiological limitations and operate in the same non-respirable medium and hyperbaric conditions. All divers are exposed to the same fundamental hazards from the same high risk environment.

All forms of work-related diving introduce additional hazards and for this reason, occupational rather than recreational diver training should be considered mandatory for all work related diving.

Fundamental differences between occupational and recreational diver training arise out of the duty of care a working diver has to manage, not only their own safety, but that of other members of the diving team. Acceptable work injury rates amongst divers can only be achieved through quality competence-based training, where occupational divers (unlike their recreational counterparts) are trained, practised and assessed in the relevant OHS responsibilities in line with the requirements of appropriate legislation, standards and codes.

Occupational diver training teaches a working diver how to work safely in a hostile environment through proper organisation and planning, use of operating procedures and the selection and maintenance of appropriate diving equipment, much of which is much more sophisticated than basic recreational SCUBA equipment.

Recreational Diving & Training

Occupational Diving & Training

Motivation and Diving Environment

Recreational diving is undertaken from choice – to have fun and enjoy the underwater environment. Divers select their dive locations to maximise this enjoyment and seek good visibility, warm water and interesting and/or pretty sites. They have complete control of the decision whether to dive or not, when and where to dive, whether to accept the location, the depth, water conditions, the weather, their diving buddies, whether to undertake a no-decompression dive or to incur a decompression loading. The dives are generally short (of 30 – 45mins duration) and can be terminated at the diver’s pleasure. Recreational divers are primarily diving focused. They use simple, basic equipment and are unlikely to undertake complex tasks.

With occupational diving, the element of choice is largely removed or restricted by the necessity for the diver to achieve a specific task at a specific location, often within a specific timeframe. The job often has to be done now, under the visibility, current, depth, weather, etc, conditions at the site.  The dive may be part of a program of work, an annual scientific survey, site preparation for a bridge, a salvage operation on a collapsed structure or police recovering a body or vital evidence.

The divers are diving for hire or reward.  They are undertaking tasks that can have them working hard for long hours in hazardous and unpleasant conditions. Work ethos is a necessary competence – put in, get the job done, work as a team – they are professionals undertaking a job.

The higher risk environments in which occupational diving is often undertaken means that additional precautions must be taken to control hazards so as to keep those associated risk within acceptable parameters. In construction diving for example, visibility is often extremely limited due to the turbid conditions of the water at the worksite (harbours, reservoirs, rivers, quarries, dams etc). There is often work being undertaken that worsens conditions – concreting, construction, cutting and welding, coring, dredging etc.  The water (and the diver) are often cold and divers may well be required to operate in dry or hot water suits which impose additional task-loading to that already resulting from the work and operating tools.

Working divers are primarily task focused. Often required to perform complex or physically demanding tasks underwater, they must rely on surface orientated support and supervision in order to perform the task safely whilst at the same time using more sophisticated diving equipment.

Levels of Risk Acceptance

Individual recreational divers are free to nominate and accept any level of risk. Most will simply make this decision based on their training and experience after consultation with their diving buddy. Levels of risk acceptance associated with deep, wreck and cave diving would not be tolerated if they were subject to OHS requirements.

For working divers in all jurisdictions, general duty of care provisions require that the employer ensure that, so far as reasonably practicable, the employee (diver) is safe from injury and risk to health. It is worth noting that no distinction is made between occupations or activities, implying that this duty is absolute. This general duty of care extends to common law and together with OHS responsibilities as they apply to others, is often the focus for litigation following diving accidents or incidents.

Diver Training

Recreational diver training is undertaken in an unregulated environment where training input is reduced to an absolute minimum because of cost cutting in the highly competitive environment and the general impatience of the modern generation. Most recreational trainee divers receive only a basic introduction to human physiological responses to hyperbaric pressure; the physics of water and air pressure effects; and are taught the fundamentals of operating scuba equipment and maintaining buoyancy control in benign conditions. Increasingly, ‘open water divers’ (the normal basic training level) receive such minimal training that they are advised (and expected) to only dive under the immediate supervision and direction of an instructor or dive master in benign environmental conditions to a maximum of 18m. The training framework is intentionally minimalist and designed to encourage a continuing commercial relationship between the diver and the dive school. If not for ongoing post-training mentoring by diving clubs and chartered boat dives under the supervision of diving instructors and dive masters, it is likely that recreational diving accidents and incidents would be significantly higher. Recreational diver training is unquestionably the cheapest form of diver training. Entry-level SCUBA courses cost approximately $600 (about 10% of the cost of an occupational SCUBA diving course). While courses can vary, the industry standard (AS/NZS 4005) sees divers typically trained over two weekends, with 2 days of theory/pool followed by a minimum of 100 minutes diving in “open water” spread over 4 dives.

The minimal cost and time involved explains why so many industries and operators argue in favour of recreational rather than occupational diver training.

Occupational diver training, assessment and certification is generally mandated under law or at the least is prescribed by the employer’s general duty of care. Recreational diver training is used as a prerequisite for working divers to ensure that trainees have achieved some basic degree of comfort with the underwater environment and have a reasonable chance of achieving the required competencies. Certified occupational diver training is delivered to national and international recognised standards and must be subject to rigorous quality assurance measures. The training and assessment is conducted in accordance with the provisions of the Australian/New Zealand Standards (AS/NZS 2299.1 and AS2815). These standards are developed by a broad representative cross-industry committee and are exposed for public comment and input. In addition to basic diving and relevant work skills, every occupational diver must develop an appropriate work ethos and the discipline and confidence to safely discharge the duties of: diver; standby diver; and diver’s attendant. In order to do this they must learn:

  • Roles and responsibilities under OHS
  • Applicable legislation Standards and Codes
  • Work planning
  • Formal objective-based risk assessment
  • Selection, care and use of a wide range of appropriate occupational diving equipment and diver support equipment
  • Record keeping
  • A wide range of tool and task skills.

ADAS diver training is accredited under the national Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) and ADAS is a Registered Training Organisation (RTO) – code 88104.

The ADAS Board is representative of the main industry sectors: State, Commonwealth and NZ regulatory bodies, Diving Contractor Associations, seafood, police, diving medical specialists and the unions.

ADAS Diver Trainers are all highly experienced work divers who are trained and qualified as Workplace Trainers and Assessors.

During training, trainee divers are exposed to a range of conditions (cold water, low and nil visibility, etc) designed to replicate the full range of conditions that they might reasonably experience in the workplace. All assessments are judged on applied tasks to ensure that the skills learned and the competencies achieved are relevant to the work and conditions that the diver might experience performing a range of activities in a particular industry sector.

Quality-assured occupational diver training requires highly trained staff, robust and proven procedures and specialised equipment and facilities. As occupational diver training runs over weeks rather than days and requires much more sophisticated plant and equipment, it is considerably more expensive than recreational diver training.

ADAS occupational diver training is delivered to exacting international standards and must meet rigorous quality assurance requirements. Occupational AS/NZS 2815 minimum course contact time:

  • Part 1 – Occupational SCUBA (30m) – 240 hrs
  • Part 2 –Occupational SSBA (30m) – 480 hrs
  • Part 3 – Occupational SSBA (50m) – 720 hrs

Medical Fitness

Recreational divers generally undertake a relatively undemanding recreational dive medical examination prior to training and are thereafter self-screened for fitness and health. Medicals are often performed by Medical Practitioners with minimal or no special training in diving medicine.

Certified occupational divers must have annual medicals against the rigorous AS/NZS 2299.1 occupational diver medical requirements. These medicals must be performed by a medical practitioner appropriately trained in underwater medicine.

Support and Organisation

There is almost never any surface support for recreational divers – if the divers get into trouble, they are on their own – again reflective of a lower duty of care and higher level of risk acceptance. There have been many instances of divers being left behind or failing to return from a dive and later being found dead.

Like all high-risk workplace activities, occupational diving requires well developed team work, with each worker assigned a task or a number of tasks as part of their role.

Planning is also a fundamental work skill – all hazards likely to be encountered must be identified, and a comprehensive dive plan developed and implemented to keep risk within acceptable limits. Techniques and methods for overcoming the difficulties of working underwater and completing the task must be identified and a safe work method statement prepared if necessary. Importantly this must include emergency protocols.

A specifically trained and assessed, experienced and certified dive supervisor is appointed to ensuring the safety and efficiency of the dive. He/she cannot dive whilst supervising and has specific roles and responsibilities defined by the standard (AS/NZS 2299.1) – his/her prime tasks being to ensure the safety of the divers and the success of the job(s).

At all times that occupational divers are underwater, there must be a system in place to ensure that they can safely be brought back to the surface in an emergency. A trained stand-by diver is dedicated to undertaking rescue and recovery if the diver gets into trouble. Dedicated personnel have roles that ensure the diver’s air supply is not compromised; that the power tools are turned on and off to render them safe when required; that the diver’s communications are constantly monitored; and that any external operations do not interfere with safety of the diver.

Equipment

The dives are conducted using self-contained breathing apparatus (SCUBA) which provides quite limited self-contained supplies of air and it is the diver’s responsibility to monitor their own air consumption, depth and decompression obligations. Because SCUBA has the inherent restriction of a limited and finite air supply, death by drowning as a result of running out of air is a common finding in recreational SCUBA fatalities.

Some recreational divers may use Hookah, a crude recreational form of surface supplied breathing apparatus. Hookah diving is over-represented in both recreational and occupational diving fatality statistics, with the main cause being carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from exhaust fumes being sucked into the compressor intakes left unattended on the surface.

Occupational divers typically work harder and consume more air than their recreational counterparts. Because SCUBA use is generally not considered appropriate for all but relatively simple inspection type dives of short duration, occupational divers instead use Surface Supplied Breathing Apparatus (SSBA). Occupational standards require that SSBA divers are provided with not only a primary, but also a secondary air supply from bulk air supplies on the surface, together with a third and independent air supply (emergency bail out cylinder) being worn by the diver. This level of redundancy, together with the specialised equipment used, ensures that out of air-of-air situations are virtually eliminated. Hard-wire or through-water voice communications with the surface is generally considered mandatory and adds significantly to the safety and efficiency of the diving operation.

When conducting decompression diving or when the risk level exceeds prescribed limits, occupational dive teams must have hyperbaric chamber facilities and appropriately trained personnel onsite.

Relationships & Outcomes

Recreational divers are trained to dive as a pair with some voluntary reciprocal responsibility to care for each other (the ‘buddy system’) and to attempt a rescue in an emergency by sharing their limited air reserves through the use of a spare demand regulator. While universally adopted as a risk control, the buddy system has severe limitations. It has been responsible for many double fatalities when poorly equipped divers, lacking in competence and caught unawares, panic and compromise both their own and their buddy’s safety. As the name implies “recreational” diving is just that.

Even at the professional instructor level, the emphasis is on teaching, fault correction and control of a recreational group underwater. While recreational diving instructors and dive masters may be knowledgeable about recreational diving and equipment and possess high levels of in-water skills, this must not be confused with the skill and knowledge requirements of occupational divers. The recreational accrediting agencies such as SSI, PADI, etc have repeatedly stated that their certifications are not designed for occupational diving and are not be regarded as such.

In occupational diving, the relationships are often varied and complex. However in recognising this, OHS legislation seeks to place responsibility on all parties. This includes those who design, manufacture, import and supply the equipment, as well as employers, contractors and employees. While contractual arrangements might be complex, both statute and common law dictates that all reasonable steps must be taken to protect the safety of a working diver whilst underwater.

In Australia’s increasingly litigious society, employers, legislators and others should consider why amateur recreational diving standards and practices are allowed to prevail in emergency, high-risk industries such as aquaculture and wild-catch harvesting.

It should be noted that many of these industries base their diving codes and practices almost entirely on the inappropriate use of recreational diver training and have notably poor safety records.