Health

High risk in the lower depths

Arturo Gonzalez October 9 1978
Health

High risk in the lower depths

Arturo Gonzalez October 9 1978

High risk in the lower depths

Health

In the struggle to pump coal-black petroleum up from oceans’ depths, the shock troops are the divers. There are 1,500 of these young men ministering to giant offshore oil rigs, some in fins and face masks diving just below the surface, others in hard hats laying pipeline or welding in inky darkness 600 feet down—where if their life-support systems failed they’d be instantly compacted into something resembling strawberry jam. Since 1971, 27 divers have been killed in the British sector of the North Sea alone. “That’s the officially released figure,” says one diver, a 26-year-old Canadian who’s been out under the rigs for two years now. “But off the record, the total’s higher. There are so many twoand three-man outfits out here, headquartered in Holland or Texas or Nova Scotia, that don’t feel under any obligation to tell the authorities about their casualties. Who’d hire a company that’s accident-prone?” Nevertheless, overseers of the North Sea drilling operations are clearly worried about the diving death rate. To cut the casualty toll, Bruce Millan, MP and secretary of state for Scotland, has just announced that the government is going to build a $1.5-million divers’ medical centre in Aberdeen—as quickly as it can. Specially trained physicians, many diver-qualified themselves, will man the installation, often going out to the rigs and down into pressurized tanks to perform surgery on injured underwater personnel whose bodies would literally explode if suddenly exposed to the normal, sea-level air pressure of an ordinary hospital. Worldwide offshore oil industry leaders will be looking to the

new Aberdeen medical centre for solutions to many of the safety problems that plague the industry today. By the 1980s, about a third of the oil the world consumes will come from offshore drilling—6,000 divers will be working the North Sea alone. And every year the divers are going deeper. Exxon has already sent them as deep as 3,000 feet. The experts need to know what can be done to lessen an industrial death-rate 33 times that of coal mining and 220 times worse than that on the typical factory floor.

“We’re delighted that the government has at last got its act together,” says Bill Duncan, manager of British operations for K. D. Marine. The diving company, owned by Canadian Walter Wolf, has been in the North Sea since 1972 and specializes in deep diving. A smallish firm, with 60 employees, it has lost three of its divers to date. Two were freeswimming divers, swept away. “It’s easy to make the mistake and think that only deep diving is dangerous,” says Duncan. “But at least deep divers are connected to safety by lifelines, air hoses and communication cables. Scuba divers can sometimes be washed out to sea and we don’t even know they’re missing for a tragically long time.”

K. D. Marine’s third casualty was John Dimmer, a diver with six years experience, who spent 1 xk minutes working 492 feet down under a pressure of 200 - pounds - per - squareinch (air pressure on the surface is 15-pounds-persquare-inch). He was

brought up in a pressurized diving bell and locked into a sealed chamber for what should have been eight hours of uneventful decompression. But as the pressure dropped, he suddenly began complaining that he couldn’t breathe. The rig had no doctor aboard, only a medic who frantically radioed Aberdeen for advice. They instructed him to repressure Dimmer’s chamber and choppered doctors out to the rig, suspecting that Dimmer had an air bubble trapped between his lungs and his rib cage that was inflating as the air pressure dropped. But as K. D. Marine diving supervisor Mike Spencer recalls grimly, “We didn’t have available the hollow needle the doctors said was necessary to pull the air out of John’s chest. We didn’t even have a proper thermometer for taking his temperature—if we had used the mercury one we had it could have broken under the pressure and vaporized as a poison gas.” After five hellish days in the pressure tank Dimmer died—a diver who, Duncan says, could have been saved if rig medics were trained and equipped by a medical facility like the one to be built in Aberdeen.

Sophisticated rescue work isn’t all the new medical centre will have to attempt. Some of the veteran divers are beginning to display alarming side effects from their sub-surface careers. There’s bone necrosis, a sort of rot in which bones shatter randomly. And vestibular bends, which affect balance. “I’ve had a bad CNS (central nervous system) hit,” admits diver Ken Beck. “I had a 75-per-cent wipe-out in one ear— it got so bad I couldn’t keep my balance, especially in the dark.” Doctors have to find out which anesthetics can or cannot be used under pressure and how to stitch wounds so that the stitches won’t burst as the patient is returned to normal atmosphere. And the psychological pressures on divers living in an underwater “habitat” a month at a time, cooped up in the tiny pressure chambers between brief working sessions on the bottom, are just beginning to be understood.

For the doctors, the divers and the giant companies of the oil industry, the Aberdeen centre represents a major research base for a different kind of exploration of the oceans that cover so much of the world’s oil supply. “What we discover here,” says Dr. Colin Jones of BP, “will be useful off the coast of North America, offshore in Mexico, the Middle East, Asia. When you realize how much of the world’s undiscovered oil is offshore, you can see that what we’ll be learning here in Aberdeen about this miserable stretch of North Sea water the whole world will benefit from eventually.” Arturo Gonzalez