OSHA needs to update underwater construction protections

| February 19, 2014 | 0 Comments

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to shine a light on a serious injustice that needs to be righted. In the case of inadequate underwater construction oversite, it’s taken two. The Occupational Health & Safety Administration has cited Lucas Marine Acquisition Co. LLC, (which touts itself as “Experts in Marine Construction Solutions”) with 22 violations following the second drowning death in five months of an underwater construction worker. OSHA said the workers were sent underwater with inadequate training for the dangers of such work.


underwater construction

A Navy diver welding underwater. Courtesy U.S. Navy.

According to the article:

OSHA issued three willful citations for the employer’s failure to:

•       Ensure workers performing underwater diving operations had adequate experience and training to perform the work safely.

•       Provide employees engaged in diving operations with two-way voice communications for emergency assistance.

•       Ensure the designated person-in-charge was trained and had experience with planning, performing and overseeing dive operations safely.

It has placed the Florida company on its Severe Violator Enforcement program, which “mandates targeted follow-up inspections.” OSHA is also proposing $290,000 in fines.

But that’s cold comfort for the victims of these violations and the thousands of underwater workers who put their life on the line every year. “A worker should not have to sacrifice their life to earn a paycheck,” the article quotes an OSHA official saying.

Yet, when it comes to underwater construction, many do. OSHA acknowledges as much:

 Nearly 10,000 workers employed as commercial divers, government divers, and sea harvesters face an exceptionally high risk of death and serious physical harm on the job. An average of 6 to 13 diving-related fatalities occur each year, (1,2) corresponding to a risk of between 28 and 50 deaths per thousand workers over a working lifetime of 45 years. OSHA’s existing standards, last updated in 1978, do not adequately reflect the numerous changes in the technology of diving systems and equipment since that time. OSHA is developing an action plan to protect these workers but is not initiating rulemaking at this time.

Notice this sentence: “OSHA’s existing standards, last updated in 1978, do not adequately reflect the numerous changes in the technology of diving systems and equipment since that time.” Keep in mind that OSHA is the federal government’s main enforcement and watchdog for workplace safety.

OSHA does have rules for working around water. But it says other agencies have better standards for underwater construction safety, offering up the likes of the American National Standards Institute. But these don’t bear the force of law, or the teeth of fines. It begs the question why OSHA doesn’t have its own adequate rules. Just looking at the dangers of underwater construction seems enough to warrant such rules:

Compression & Decompression. Caused when divers rise too quickly. Warning signs are sore joints, itchy skin, vision and hearing difficulty, paralysis, and death

Nitrogen Narcosis. Causes effects similar to alcohol intoxication.

Oxygen Toxicity. Can result in disorientation, trouble breathing, trouble with vision, lung damage, seizures, and death.

Again, OSHA acknowledges its shortcoming:

Commercial diving safety meets several of the criteria for designation as an OSHA priority. … The risks of fatal injury are extremely high and there are known protective measures which could save lives. In addition, industry representatives have shown a strong interest in pursuing additional measures to protect workers.

Companies like Lucas Marine Acquisition Co. LLC, will continue to sacrifice the lives of workers if they can get away with it. It’s time for OSHA to update its rules from 1978 to 2014 and protect the thousands of underwater construction workers who put their lives on the line every year. Anything else would be another tragedy. 

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Category: Natural water, Safety

About the Author

Gary Thill is the former editor of Aquatics International, an award-winning magazine for the commercial pool and waterpark markets. He is a nationally recognized writer and editor with an extensive communications background that includes print, online and social media.