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Commercial Diving Called Hazardous

January 22, 2000

REESEDALE, Pa. (AP) _ Inspecting a hydropower dam 60 feet below the surface of the Allegheny River was a routine job for Todd Washburn. But in the underwater world of commercial diving, the unexpected always shadows the familiar.

The 33-year-old Trenton, N.J., man, who had 18 months of experience as a commercial diver, disappeared Jan. 13 while inspecting gates that control water flow to the dam’s generator.

Rescuers found his body five days later in 20 feet of water downstream from the Piney Hydroelectric Station, about 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. His funeral is planned for today in Trenton.

In 1998, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported commercial divers are 40 times more likely to die or have a major accident than other workers.

``It’s a very hazardous industry,″ said Frances Stepp, president of the National Association of Commercial Divers. ``There are easier ways to earn a living.″

Washburn’s air lines broke just after he signaled to his surface crew he was ready to come up, fellow diver Jeff Pelkowski said.

``Every time you get in the water there is an inherent danger, even if it’s just a survey or inspection,″ he said.

The work of commercial divers includes heavy construction in dark, deep waters and sometimes strong, cold currents. Divers weld, pour concrete, lay pipe and inspect structures, all the while carrying 70 pounds or more of equipment.

Last year, 90 of the nation’s 2,500 commercial divers were killed on the job, Stepp said. She is investigating 30 other fatalities that might have involved commercial diving accidents.

The job attracts young men with recreational or military diving experience. Few continue past the age of 50, due to its physical demands.

Finding jobs is easy, said Ernie Barton, training director at the College of Oceaneering in Wilmington, Calif.

``I would sense that 99 percent of our students have some idea of the industry before they get here through their own research,″ he said. ``Schools train the basics, and graduates hopefully go to work for a reputable diving company with its own set of standards.″

Scuba diving is actually more dangerous than commercial diving because the latter employs backup equipment and radio contact with a surface crew, he said.

But Stepp said the industry isn’t well-regulated.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is investigating Washburn’s death, places commercial divers in a ``miscellaneous″ labor code, which also includes home tax preparers and taxidermists.

The grouping hinders efforts to keep track of diver deaths and accidents, Stepp said.

The U.S. Coast Guard is supposed to investigate the deaths of divers working on ocean jobs, but divers often are lumped in with construction workers, further complicating efforts to maintain accurate statistics, she said.

OSHA has safety regulations for divers, and the Coast Guard has a few rules. But job standards are mostly left to diving outfits and the companies that hire them, she said.

Pete Pilkington, a contractor from Bellevue, Wash., said his son died four years ago after a compressor malfunctioned as he inspected an inactive oil well off the coast of Texas.

Since then, he has campaigned against a lack of regulations in the industry. His son’s dive, he says, should have been canceled because backup divers and equipment were not at the site.

The father and son were once recreational divers, and the elder Pilkington said he never worried about his son’s choice of profession.

``Had I looked into it a little more seriously,″ he said, ``I probably would have encouraged my son to do something else.″

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