When we think of unsung heroes, we tend to think of soldiers, nurses, firefighters, and the laborers that pave our city streets and build our houses.
Very few people are even aware of the work that commercial divers do and how vital they are to our global economy.
Without these unsung heroes, everything from the oil supply to the goods that we use every day would be severely disrupted or not available at all.
To shine some well-deserved light on these heroes of the deep, we will answer the most asked questions about this industry. We will define commercial diver and go onto cover the questions such as what is the vital work that they do to keep our global economy afloat.
What is a commercial diver?
A commercial diver is a professional diver who makes their living working underwater.
In order to become a commercial diver, aspiring divers are required to undertake a rigorous commercial diving training program which can take up to 1 year.
Examples of commercial divers include underwater welders, HAZMAT diver, diving instructor, safety diver, NDT tester.
What commercial divers do?
The answer to this question is perhaps better highlighted by the question, what don’t commercial divers do?
Provided they have the relevant training, commercial divers can literally end up doing any underwater job. One week they might find themselves helping to construct a new offshore oil rig while just a few weeks later they might be helping to salvage a wreck. The most typical job that commercial divers find themselves doing is underwater welding and general maintenance.
Underwater welders are not only essential for building underwater structures that ports, oil rigs, and other platforms require but also for repairing these structures and ships that are unable to be dry-docked for financial reasons, etc.
There is a whole range of specialist diving jobs that are less common but equally as important. Let’s take a look at a few:
Otherwise known as Sat Diving, saturation diving is a very specialist area of commercial diving. According to statistics from 2015, “of the 3,300 commercial divers employed in the United States, only 336 were saturation divers”.
Saturation diving involves divers saturating their body tissues so that they align with the pressures that they are working at.
At sea level, the pressure exerted on the human body is 14.7 psi. However, for every foot that a person goes further underwater, pressure increases by 0.445 psi.
This means that not only will a diver be crushed to death if they venture too deep, but even at manageable depths, their body is being forced to deal with pressures that change the way it behaves. The most common example is ‘The Bends’, which occurs when dissolved gasses build up under pressure in the body. If the diver surfaces too quickly then these bubbles expand and can cause potentially life-threatening injuries.
Because it takes too much time to desaturate deep divers after each dive, they are kept under pressure in special hyperbaric chambers for days, often weeks at a time.
Saturation diving takes a special kind of mindset as well as dedication, which is why it is the best-paid type of diving.
While the thought of working in or around toxic or harmful substances might not seem like it would be the first choice of any diver, there are many commercial divers who do nothing else.
HAZMAT divers undertake a range of tasks that are essential to protecting our environment and living waterways.
HAZMAT divers that work in the nuclear industry are vital to removing the harmful nuclear waste that has powered our towns and cities, but is now potentially an environmental catastrophe if not dealt with properly.
Other examples of HAZMAT diving include sewage system maintenance and toxic chemical cleanup from sunken ships. HAZMAT divers were recently called in to help deal with the 67 tons of toxic Mercury that were found to be leaking from a WW2 German submarine wreck in Norway.
Thanks to the latest equipment and materials, HAZMAT divers operate with the minimum possible risk, which has resulted in this area of diving having an exceptional safety record.
Whenever something valuable sinks someone has to get it.
Commercial divers are the central component to salvage diving. Since most wrecks are too expensive to raise for their cargo, divers are sent down to recover it instead.
Salvage divers have recovered everything from oil and other harmful substances to Spanish bullion and ancient artifacts. While robots can do some of the work, they are limited in their abilities and so human divers must step in.
In some cases, entire vessels are brought back to the surface, either in pieces or whole. The Russian submarine ‘Kursk’ was one of the largest ever salvage operations.
At 154.0 m (505.2 ft) in length with a total displacement of 13,400 to 16,400 tons, the task of raising the Kursk was enormous.
It was decided that commercial divers would set up a huge saw that would cut off the destroyed front section of the ship before connecting straps to hoist the ship to the surface. The operation took salvage divers months, but in the end, the Kursk was raised and the bodies recovered for the grieving families.
Is commercial diving dangerous?
The exact figures on global commercial diving fatalities and injuries are hard to pin down. According to a paper by Francis Hermans, “the United States the OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) conducted such a study in 1998 and concluded that the annual fatality rate was about 181 per 100,000.”
This is roughly 40 times higher than the average industry fatality rate in the U.S.A at that time.
Commercial diving is and will always be a dangerous industry.
Until humans can breathe underwater without equipment, the ever-present danger of accidents that would not be life-threatening on land, but can be fatal underwater, means that the diving industry must always work hard to ensure divers are as safe as possible.
This is why the industry has developed such strict safety standards for training, work practices, diver support, and equipment.
What does a commercial diver make? The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that commercial divers welders earn an average hourly wage of $26.32 or $54,750 per year.
Pay rates can vary quite considerably as new graduates are regarded as undertaking on the job training and so receive less. Divers that pass this initial 2 to 3 year period will quickly find themselves earning higher salaries which align with the work they are performing.
The top 10% of commercial divers make $93,910 or more per year. This figure is dwarfed by the huge sums that saturation divers make when working offshore full-time.
How long do commercial divers work?
Unsurprisingly, more commercial divers are likely to leave in the first 1 to 2 years of work than at any other time. Divers that do find their love for commercial diving usually end up working until they spot an opportunity for advancement.
Many divers work into their late 30s, 40s, and some even into their 50s. Since there is no legal age limit for being a commercial diver, it is up to the diver as to when they hang up their gear.
Most spot a way to advance their career, such as opening their own diving business or becoming a dive supervisor, etc., and move off to take on the new challenge and earn even more.
Due to the conditions, stresses, and dangers involved, saturation divers tend to have shorter careers than other fields of diving.
How to become a commercial diver?
Once you have decided that you wish to become a commercial diver you will need to follow these steps:
1. Find the best commercial diving training center.
2. Enroll, buy the required equipment, and complete the course.
3. Apply for commercial diving jobs.
4. Jump in the deep end and get as much experience as you can.
5. Decide which area you want to specialize in.
6. Complete any further training and get going.
What is the best commercial diving school?
There are a number of top diving training centers in the United States and the rest of the world.
To compare the best ones so that you can pick the right one, we suggest you read this comprehensive commercial diving school comparison produced by WaterWelders.
Provided that the location is ok, you can’t go wrong with schools such as The Divers Institute of Technology in Seattle or Santa Barbara City College in California.
Where to find commercial diving jobs?
If you don’t already have the industry connections then the best way to find new commercial diving jobs is to hit the online job boards.
Alternatively, if you are fresh out of dive school then your school should be able to help you via the connections that its instructors already have. Hit them up to ask and you will soon find yourself working in some exotic location in your dream diving job.