In the overwhelming majority of dive accidents and dive fatalities, human error was the primary cause, said Dan Orr, president of Divers Alert Network, during a presentation he gave on dive safety while in the Cayman Islands last week.
During the seminar, which was aimed at dive professionals, Mr. Orr presented the results of his organisation’s analysis of available statistics on divers and dive related accidents and fatalities, and examined ways in which these could be prevented.
DAN is an international dive safety organisation that researches medical issues affecting divers in order to develop diving safety guidelines, as well as operating an emergency hotline, dive evacuation service and offering dive insurance.
Although the organisation does not have access to data concerning every dive related injury or fatality that occurs worldwide, it has analysed almost 1,000 files on dive fatalities to determine the root causes of these incidents, and therefore re-examine how such incidents could be prevented.
This analysis revealed some significant trends:
Fifty per cent of all dive fatalities were in the 40 to 59 age group. “The dive community is ageing,” said Mr. Orr. “Twenty two years ago, the average age of a DAN member was 38. Now it’s 45.”
Twenty eight per cent of all fatalities analysed were cardiac related – meaning that they experienced some kind of cardiac event that ultimately lead to death. As the dive community continues to age, this figure is expected to increase, Mr. Orr said. What is of greater concern, he added, is that of those who died from cardiac causes, 60 per cent had signs or symptoms that they, or those who were with them, recognised as cardiac related. “If you have symptoms then you shouldn’t be diving,” Mr. Orr said. “If you recognise symptoms in somebody else try, to convince them not to dive. Those people could have not had those cardiac issues underwater and could be alive today.”
Of the total number of dive fatalities analysed, 88 per cent were on the first dive of their vacation or trip. Looking beyond these profiles, the research examined the root cause or “trigger” that set off a series of events that resulted in a dive turning bad, and in these cases ending in death.
Other than cardiac incidents, other triggers the research identified were: Running out of air or breathing gas (41 per cent), entrapment (15 per cent), equipment problems (11 per cent), trauma (4 per cent), buoyancy problems (3 per cent) and inappropriate gas mixtures (2 per cent) in technical diving.
In the majority of cases, these triggers came down to human error – it was not the sea or body of water that divers were in that caused a problem, it was their own poor decisions, lack of training, experience or skills that resulted in an incident.
Therefore, in addressing how accidents can be prevented, the onus is on the individual diver to ensure their training and skills are kept up to date and practiced regularly. Their equipment should be serviced by professionals and divers should ensure they are familiar with their own and their buddy’s gear configuration, Mr. Orr said. Divers need to be aware of their personal level of experience and ability and not task-load or dive beyond their abilities. The statistics clearly demonstrate that the older, overweight and obese divers are at greater risk of injury or death. Although there are no international requirements for it, DAN recommends all divers aged over 35 undergo regular medical examinations with a physician who is knowledgeable in dive medicine before diving.
Based on the available statistics, the number of dive-related fatalities per year has remained fairly constant for the past 20 to 30 years, said Mr. Orr. Nonetheless, many of the accidents that do occur, occur as a result of human error. If that human error could be eliminated, he said, accidents and fatalities could be significantly reduced among divers.