Tue, Sep 29, 2009
The New Paper

By Teh Jen Lee and Tay Shi'an

THEY work in murky, polluted waters with minimal visibility, and endure the nauseating taste and smell of exhaust in the water.

They face dangers like electrocution, explosions and drowning.

Their duties include inspecting and cleaning ship hulls, underwater welding and cutting and salvaging sunken ships, all of which involves operating heavy-duty equipment.

This is the world of commercial divers.

Freelance diver Gerald Chia Jia Jie, 21, went missing on 18 Sep, while carrying out works on an oil rig at the Jurong West Anchorage.

His body was found two days later. He had been on the job for just three days.

While Mr Chia was no diving newbie - he was a qualified recreational dive instructor - some veterans in the field say his death has thrown into the spotlight the hazards of the job.

Why do recreational divers, who have no experience in the industrial field, get into the game?

For the money.

While a trainee commercial diver's pay is in the region of $1,000 to $1,500, a good experienced diver can earn about $10,000 a month. A tricky offshore job in the Middle East can even fetch US$1,000 ($1,420) a day.

But doing the job well and safely requires proper training, which costs time and money.

West Squadron Marine Services, a local commercial dive company, has poured in resources for training and equipment.

Owner Derek Tan, 47, a commercial diver of more than 20 years, showed us the qualifications of all the divers in his company.

They are all professionally certified by the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADCI), a US organisation that is considered the industry watchdog for safe commercial diving.

Mr Tan said that any new diver who wants to join the company first works on the boat for three months to become familiar with all the equipment.

Then, the new diver spends another three months learning skills like welding and polishing on practice structures that Mr Tan has built underwater off the west coast, or working alongside more experienced divers or dive supervisors.

Mr Tan showed us the equipment inspection certificates, and let us see the high-tech gear required for commercial diving.

He said: 'Safety is the most important thing in this job. Money can always be earned back, but you have only one life.'

Mr Tamil Chelvan, 49, a diving supervisor and commercial diver for 30 years, added that many basic procedures are ignored by some companies.

For instance, keeping proper log books to record the amount of time the diver has spent underwater, to make sure no health problems arise.

Or the use of safety lines, which keep the diver connected to the boat at all times so he will not go missing. If something happens, his supervisor and colleagues can pull him in.

And annual medical checks, with emphasis on the ears and lungs.

Some of these are mentioned in the 120-page technical advisory for commercial diving, which was completed this year by the Workplace Safety and Health Council (WSHC) with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), after extensive industry consultations.

But some in the industry say enforcement may be an issue.

Said a commercial diver with 30 years of experience, who declined to be named: 'In the shipping industry, there are a lot of freelancers, and many accidents happen in open sea.

'It's bo cheng hu (Hokkien for no government) because the industry is very hard to control.

'When you're out on a boat, who's going to oversee the operations and enforce safety? Getting third-party assessment will incur extra costs and make it hard to earn a living.'

Some commercial divers are saying that professional certification should be made mandatory to be a commercial diver.

Currently, the WSHC's advisory, while detailed on many operational aspects, is vague on the qualifications needed.

To be a commercial diver, the advisory says the diver must 'be trained and must have passed relevant courses by an accredited organisation, and have experience commensurate with the required diving mode (ie he knows what to do and how to do it)'.


This has led to some divers with only the basic recreational scuba-diving certification joining the profession, which some find surprising and unacceptable.

In countries like the US, Canada, the UK and Australia, commercial divers must be professionally certified.

A WSHC spokesman said it is in the midst of working with MOM to develop national competency standards and certification framework for commercial divers so as to enhance the safety standards of commercial diving activities.

'We will be consulting the industry on the standards and certification framework which we aim to roll out by the middle of next year,' the spokesman added.

Mr Robert Hilliard, an Australian marine consultant who also works on Singapore projects, told The New Paper on Sunday that allowing leisure divers to become commercial divers, is like pulling a car licence holder off the street to become a truck or bus driver.

'Working under water is much, much harder than going on a recreational dive,' he said.

'Sometimes the current is very strong, especially here in Singapore. And the water is very cloudy, so the stress level and effort of diving can be quite a surprise to a new diver, especially if he is used to only swimming with his girlfriend in a resort dive reef.'


Ship's propeller started to turn when they were cleaning it

THERE were five incidents with injuries last year, and one fatality related to commercial diving, said the WSHC.

In 2007, there was one incident with injuries.

The fatality happened in September last year, when commercial diver Mohammed Borhan Jamal, 26, went missing while he was underwater repairing a ship at the Eastern Petroleum A Anchorage.

His body was washed ashore near Batam 12 days later.

A month before that, three commercial divers were hurt, one seriously, off Marina South Pier when an oil tanker's propeller suddenly started whirling while they were cleaning it.

E-mail reminder

After Mr Chia's death, the WSHC sent out an e-mail bulletin to 31 commercial diving companies to remind them of the importance of ensuring the safety of diving operations and to refer to the technical advisory for more information on planning a safe diving operation.

WSHC also organised two forums attended by all 31 commercial diving companies in Singapore in June this year and December last year, to share learning points from previous diving accidents, best practices in diving at work, technical notes on diving and training requirements for commercial divers.

Under the Workplace Safety and Health Act and its subsidiary legislation, employers are to take reasonably practicable measures to ensure the safety and health of employees carrying out work such as diving activities.

Any party that does not meet the requirements may be charged by the Manpower Ministry. Convicted companies face a maximum fine of $500,000. Individuals may be fined up to $200,000 and/or jailed up to 24 months.

How does a commercial diver keep safe?

Much of it lies in the equipment used


Made of strong and corrosion-resistant material with stainless steel D-rings and buckles.


Usually made of 3mm neoprene material, it protects the diver from being cut by barnacles or getting stung by jellyfish, which can be fatal.


Enables the surface support team to see what the diver is seeing. This hand-held unit can also be attached to the helmet when the diver needs both hands to work.


To cut through ropes or nets that can entangle the diver.


In case the surface air supply is interrupted in an emergency.


Connects the helmet to a surface compressor that reflects the diver's real-time depth and tank air pressure. The yellow cable relays depth information while the blue reflects air pressure. The black cable enables two-way audio communication while the orange is for the camera and lighting power supply. Integrated with these cables is the white safety line.


One of these can cost $6,000. Besides providing air or the different gas mixtures used in diving, the head unit is also fitted with voice communication to the surface support team. The helmet has a flushing system which uses high-pressure air and water to clean the visor in case it gets foggy.



The diver can be cut by the boat's propeller while cleaning it if it gets turned on suddenly. This can happen if there's communication breakdown among boat workers who speak different languages. The heavy duty equipment he is handling may be dangerous too. For example, he may be inexperienced and get cut by a propeller polisher, which has a very fast-spinning motor.


Currents can change unexpectedly, especially at offshore locations. If the diver has no safety line, he drifts away and has no way of letting the boat operator know his location.


When cutting steel using an electric arc-oxygen cutting torch, hydrogen and oxygen can accumulate if the diver is under a structure. All it takes is a spark from the torch to ignite an explosion that can knock the diver unconscious or cause death.


In S'pore waters, visibility can sometimes be as low as 30cm. New divers can easily get disorientated and lost under the ship's hull. They will then have to resort to feeling the weld seam using their hands to slowly work their way out from under the hull. If they are unfamiliar with the ship structure, they may end up trying to escape length-wise.


Inexperienced diver can get electrocuted when welding.


The diver may get tangled up in cables, ropes, nets, wrecks, or plant life, and be unable to free himself.

This article was first published in The New Paper.


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