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Underwater Welder Life Expectancy: A Complicated Picture

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Thinking of signing up for underwater welding? It’s not a “typical” job, but underwater welders aren’t your typical crowd. During my interaction with welder-divers around the world, there’s a few commonalities I’ve seen among them:

  • Go-getters
  • Mechanical mindset
  • Troubleshooters
  • Passion for construction projects
  • Eager for bottom time (in the water)

Welder-diver: Danger of Job Stereotyping

One characteristic not present in underwater welders:

Eagerness for a high-risk occupation – they’re not looking for ways to die.

Quite the opposite: The vast majority of underwater welders I know operate with a conservative attitude toward maritime safety. They respect danger as inherent to the work they do. From the start of diving school training, hyperbaric welders learn how safety will aid them.

While underwater welding has an “adventure” element to it, you won’t be hunting for treasure troves or working in an underwater bomb shelter while great whites shoot at you with laser beams.

It’s underwater construction, plain and simple.

4 Studies Revealing Underwater Welder Life Expectancy

These various pieces of research help us understand several areas of diver life expectancy and death more clearly:

  1. Causes of death
  2. Death rate and age correlation
  3. Lack of research of underwater welder deaths on a broad scale

1. DTIC Study: 1943

Many people believe that electrocution is the number one cause of death among underwater welders. I can understand the correlation:

Water and electricity = unpredictability of electric current in welding electrode. Thus electricity fires into surrounding water and kills underwater welders.

But wet welding is a much more accurate science than people give it credit for. Welder-divers take every precaution when joining metal in the water, including extra protection in a rubberized dry suit. Also, underwater welding is only a small part of an underwater welders’ responsibilities. Salvage, inspections, and material installations are all a larger part of what they do.

There’s only one recorded incident of an underwater welder dying while welding underwater. It comes from the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC).

This incident occurred in 1943 at the Deep Sea Diving School. The student was wet welding in 10-feet of water. He wore a swimsuit, rubber gloves, and a custom Navy Mark V deep-sea helmet. But he was barefoot.

2. CDC Study: 1989 – 1997

An underwater welder’s life expectancy is not the same as your white-collar office worker. Last recorded, welder-divers die at a rate that is 40 times America’s national average. This diver average death rate was researched from the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s article (OSHA’s study) from 1989 – 1997. Here’s the breakdown:

The corresponding annual death rate of 5 out of approximately 3,000 full-time underwater welders. It touted drowning as the number one cause of death.

Large studies on underwater welders’ life expectancy is still limited due to the small population size in this field. About 5,500 – 7,500 divers work in the United States during any given moment. This number drops during the “offseason” offshore. Let’s look at current fatality rates using the current occupation population:

6,500 (average US underwater welder population)

6,500 / 3,000 =  2.17

2.17 X 5 = 11

Based on old fatality rates and new population statistics, approximately 11 welder-divers die every year.

In addition, underwater welding and commercial diving are listed as “non-hazardous” professions in the eyes of the government. Their labeling gives little to no incentive for increased regulations and enforcement of those regulations. (if you’re part of a diving union, that’s another matter).

3. NCBI Study: 1968 – 1978

Image credit: US Navy

Another study, published several decades earlier, was conducted on underwater welders in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea. Its results?

  • Gulf of Mexico deaths: 900
  • North Sea: 700

According to the findings, the author attributed underwater welders’ deaths to two primary characteristics:

  • Host Factors: Level of experience and behavioral dysfunction
  • Environmental factors: Equipment failure and supervisor/tender errors

The study also presented several solutions to increase the life expectancy of divers. Though these improvements may seem obvious to readers, they take years to fully implement. All deal with preparation before the hyperbaric welder jumps into the water.

  • Improved processing and selection of underwater welder
  • Upgraded system for maintaining and using diving and maritime equipment
  • Enhanced drills and emergency diving procedures
  • More dive training for appropriate situations

As you can see, there’s no specific “cause of death” presented in this study, only external factors that increase its presence – including lack of diver experience.

4. TDA Study: 2002 – 2014

Kyla Richter, a diving supervisor, disagreed with “lack of diver experience” as a primary factor in underwater welding deaths. She posted her findings.

She based her data primarily on numbers from The Divers Association (TDA), an organization that fights for increased commercial diving safety around the world. It also allows for divers to report accidents and fatalities (some officially documented, others not).

Using TDA’s reports from 2002 – 2014, Kyla used 251 of the documented diver fatalities. All reported the divers’ age.

From these, she took a random sample of 40 reports and found the average age of the diver to be 37. Kyla then took a larger sample and found the average age of underwater welder deaths between 35 – 40 (not conclusive, but based on her results).

What does this mean?

Most underwater welders go to diving school at age 20. If welder-divers are dying at ages 35 – 40, they’ve most likely been working in the field for 10 – 15 years. So it’s not the divers with the lack of experience.

Companies are getting away with poor safety measures and investigations need some serious revision if they really mean to improve conditions for employees and not protect the interests of the company. – Kyla Richter

Topside Death Rate Comparison: Construction & Manufacturing

All of this research is helpful, but how can we compare it to something more familiar? As I mentioned before, underwater welders work as maritime construction laborers. The closest topside comparisons to this are in construction and manufacturing. I analyzed the Bureau of Labor and Statistics’ (BLS) occupational fatalities for 2014 in these two sectors:

Topside Construction

  • Population (P): 5,290,270
  • Work-related Deaths (W): 874

Corresponding Annual Death Rate (W/P): 2

Topside Manufacturing

  • Population (P): 12,301
  • Work-related Deaths (W): 341

Corresponding Annual Death Rate (W/P): Less than 1

If we look at these numbers at face value, it paints a disturbing picture: An underwater welder life expectancy is about 5 – 10 times lower than laborers working in construction or manufacturing.

However, that’s only based on the data we have. The BLS doesn’t record hyperbaric welder fatalities, so the comparisons aren’t apples to apples.

How Underwater Welders Die

Statistically, divers are more likely to die while performing an inspection than welding underwater.

The first study I mentioned from the CDC mentioned drowning as the number one cause of death among underwater welders. This is still true today. But drowning happens in a multitude of ways. The events that precede drowning are extremely important.

  1. Triggering Event: (e.g. underwater welder’s umbilical cords become severely twisted)
  2. Disabling/Harmful Event: (e.g. He/she panics, causing more twisting and breaking in the line)
  3. Disabling Injury: (e.g. By the time the surface team reaches the diver, he/she is already out of air)

As we see, proper preparation and training for each job are absolutely crucial for the safety of the underwater welder.  Their life depends on it. Each situation calls for different types of preparation, and even dive tenders are partially responsible for the planning stages of a project.

Life Expectancy, Death Rates & Final Conclusions

As we saw, the TDA study yields 10-15 years of life in the commercial diving occupation. But in the end, an underwater welder’s life expectancy doesn’t solely depend on one factor.

The two most important variables of keeping welder-divers safe include proper training and company safety regulations. We know that commercial diving is a dangerous profession. But it’s necessary, just like topside construction. Accountability and safety precautions make all the difference in these jobs.

Still scratching your head, wondering if this job would work for you? Well, if you don’t know your life expectancy, you can always calculate it yourself.

How’s that for playing God?

Cameron Dekker

Cameron grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a once-proud steel town on the Lehigh River, where he got a taste of TIG welding in his high school shop class. He holds certificates for Certified WeldingEducator (CWE) and Certified Resistance Welding Technician (CRWT) from the American Welding Institute. His interests include scuba diving, sculpture, and kayaking.