It’s no secret that welding underwater comes with many risks and dangers. Many welder-divers have come out of this field of work much different people than when they came in – some in wheelchairs, some with chronic headaches or aching limbs, and some haven’t made it at all – they’ve perished in a high risk situation.
I’ve researched the death rate among underwater welders and hardly any quantifiable information exists, unfortunately. One lawyer’s website claims that 13-17% of all underwater welders don’t make it out alive. I knew this figure was grossly overestimated.
1989-1997 Commercial Diver Death Rate
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published data on commercial diver death rates dating back from 1989 to 1997, concluding that 5 deaths/year or 180/100,000 divers. Since only about 3,000 full-time commercial divers exist in the field at any one time, 5 deaths/year is the most accurate assessment they could find. Below lists the breakdowns in “cause of death”.
Back when this study was conducted, it blew other figures out of the water. It’s 40 times that of the national death rate average in all workers. These figures are the most accurate that we have to go off of, though I’m assuming death rates have decreased significantly as new safety regulations have been implemented.
Safety will always be the number one priority in the commercial diving and underwater welding profession. Many companies conduct thousands of underwater welding operations per year without incident because they remember that the safety of the diver is more important than shortcuts or cost savings.
Here are several true stories below that illustrate dangers of the commercial diving and underwater welding industry.
Radio Down, Air Cut off at 125 Feet
Joseph Patrick Gordon possessed natural athletic talent – he had been a star in football and wrestling at Stillwater Area High school in 1997. He continued his athletic pursuits after graduating and going on to the U.S. Marine Corps, wrestling and working to become a leader of his class.
Years later, Gordon joined Midco Diving and Marine Services, Inc to work as a commercial diver. It was an adventurous job with new challenges everyday.
On October 19, Gordon continued his pet project: Installing pipe material 125 below the water’s surface in Lake Sakakawea. With more depth comes more risk, but Gordon knew the possibilities and he had trained diligently.
As a safety precaution, underwater welders are almost always connected to lines going up to the surface where someone can monitor them. These lines are nicknamed umbilicals. Similar to a coaches hand movements for stealing bases, numbers of “tugs” on the lines are signals to surface support. In addition to the tug system, surface control is in constant verbal communication with the welder-diver through radio.
Gordon started his work deep below the waves. Soon though, he noticed that his communication equipment had cut off. He had no way of speaking to those on the surface, and he had limited air. To add to his desperate situation, his lines and equipment were becoming increasingly tangled and knotted, disorienting him and causing him to lose his sense of balance.
Knowing he only had a short time, Gordon tugged repeatedly on his tangled lines, signaling to the surface that he was in a precarious situation. His colleague swam down and tried to help, but he wasn’t able to untangle the mass of lines – there was too much chaos in the dark water.
Unfortunately, because of his depth and lack of air, they were unable to get to him in time.
Gordon tragically drowned.
The underwater welder depicted here has his umbilicals tied to a five-ton concrete block, preventing him from surfacing in a timely manner. If he doesn’t surface soon, he’ll be at risk of contracting decompression sickness and hospitalized:
Pulled into the Propeller: No Way Out
John BJ Koch also had a marine background, and his connections served him well, providing him with a commercial diving job with military contractors. As an experienced welder-diver, his projects took him many places for inspection, burning and welding.
The 32nd Naval Base off the coast of San Diego was a beautiful site to behold, especially on a clear, sunny morning. Though it was kept in excellent condition, the Navy needed new plastic sheet pile facings on all of the piers across the base. They picked Koch’s company for the job, and Koch worked on replacing each of the pier facings for the past nine months with his team.
Koch worked as part of the dive team, using surface supplied air to drill and clear away debris from concrete holes. Several hours pass by with no problems. Fifteen minutes into the second hour, Koch’s air cuts off. He switched to his emergency bailout bottle and tried to communicate with surface.
After some time, Koch felt tension on his surface line and realizes he’s being pulled to the surface. His ascent quickened and he looked up just in time to see a menacing, rotating shadow. Koch says it best:
As I get closer, I remember saying to myself that this is going to hurt a bit before it kills me. When I get pulled right up to the prop, I start pushing against the cone nut, and then the umbilical wraps around my right hand between my thumb and pointer and then around my right arm.
I remember thinking that my right arm was about to be twisted off like a chicken wing, so I then slide my left hand along the cone nut into the prop and grab a blade where it bounces of the blades a couple of times before I get a grip on one blade and let it pull me into the prop so my arm does not get pulled off. I remember my bronze Miller clanging against the prop as I am being twisted around and around with the prop and my legs being banged into something very hard and hurt like hell, then there was a snap and I was out.”
Koch managed to cut his weight belt with a knife and floated to the surface. He survived, but not without extensive injuries on his jaw, shoulders, wrists, fingers, elbows, ankles and back. He’s undergone multiple surgeries and had a prosthetic joint put in by his right thumb.
Success in Safety
As one diver put it, “Each day our team comes back to the surface without injury, we consider that a success.” I couldn’t agree more. Underwater welding and commercial diving is dangerous work, but many people do it safely and come back from work each day with more experience and appreciation for their team members.
Do you have a story about an accident or something gone wrong?
Please let me know below in the comments or contact me directly!