Accidents Occurring During Diver Training

 By John Lippmann, DAN Asia-Pacific Founder, Chairman and Director of Research

For a long time I have stated my view that recreational scuba diving is not only a wonderful pastime, but also a relatively safe sporting activity as long as certain conditions are satisfied. In my view these are that the diver : (1) has adequate medical and physical fitness, (2) has undergone appropriate training, (3) uses appropriate and reliable equipment, (4) has adequate experience and preparation, and (5) exercises common sense.

Diving deaths can result from a variety of causes, including an increasing number of health-related issues. For example, DAN Asia-Pacific data indicate that in Australia between 2003 and 2008, 37% of the scuba-related deaths appear to have been cardiac-related.

In a 34-year analysis of Australian deaths, equipment trouble and gas supply trouble (including running out of air) were the most common triggers of dive deaths, each accounting for 18% of accidents. Rough water was also prominent, being identified as the likely trigger in 15% of the accidents. Anxiety and stress appeared to have been a trigger in 11% of cases and buoyancy-related problems in 5%.

So, on top of being healthy and having good training, it is important to have suitable and reliable equipment, dive within your training level and experience, choose conditions commensurate with your physical abilities and mental state, and to use your common sense to make appropriate decisions before, during and after the dive.

Statistically, the safest place for a diver to be is under the watch of an instructor. However, injuries and deaths do still occur during training. In an extensive 2010 paper, Dr Drew Richardson, President of PADI reported that, over a 20-year period, there was a death rate of 1.765 per 100,000 divers under training. By way of comparison, the death rate in certified Australian divers has been reported to be 8.5 deaths/100,000 divers and 11-18/100,000 divers for DAN America Members.

Some deaths and accidents during training are inevitable as divers are learning to adapt to the potentially hostile environment. However, it is incumbent upon the instructor to make every effort to make this experience as safe as possible for the student. Training agencies have standards that their instructors are obliged to adhere to, and these include guidelines on training, ratios, equipment and various other factors. Ratios are set for ideal conditions and should be reduced accordingly if conditions are less than ideal (e.g. low visibility or current).

Despite the general safety of diver training, unforeseen circumstances, medical factors, human error, carelessness, ignorance and occasionally negligence can infrequently intervene, and a student comes to serious harm.

Beyond the victim themselves, there are others deeply affected, including the victim’s family and friends, the instructor and the rescuers. DAN reviews all cases that come to our attention to identify any lessons that can be learned in an attempt to prevent similar tragedies.

In addition to deaths, DAN is called to deal with other injuries that have occurred during training. Happily these are usually minor. However, this is not always these case. For example, not long before writing this report I dealt with two students who had suffered DCI during their training. One became very ill after a 24m dive during an Open Water course in Indonesia. This depth was a clear breach of standards. He required several recompressions locally followed by international evacuation for further treatment. He was found to have a PFO, which likely contributed to his DCI.

It is important for instructors to remember that new divers have a completely unknown susceptibility to DCI and, therefore, it is essential to adhere to depth standards and maximise surface intervals to minimise such problems.

Instructors carry a precious cargo for which they have a strong Duty of Care. On the other hand, trainees must accept certain inherent risks, including the possibility of reasonable human error.

It is important to remember that these events are quite rare and most training and diving is conducted safely, and with much delight.

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