Pearling company fined $60,000 over drift diving for pearls off Broome
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A pearling company has been fined $60,000 by the Broome Magistrates Court after pleading guilty to a charge of failing to provide and maintain a safe working environment for its drift divers who collected pearls off Eighty Mile Beach, south of Broome.
Paspaley Pearling Company Pty Ltd was charged under the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 after an investigation sparked by the drowning of Jarrod Hampton whilst drift diving for pearls in April 2012. The company was also ordered to pay costs of $5,000.
The drift diving operation involved several divers manually collecting pearls from the sea floor by being towed by a slow-moving vessel. The divers receive their oxygen from airlines connected to a compressor on board the boat and is secured to their weight belt which has a quick release mechanism so the diver can disconnect from the airline in an emergency. Horizontal work lines are suspended from the vessel by weights. Divers can hold on to these work lines while working on the sea floor, but are not attached to them.
Mr Hampton was an experienced, competent and suitably qualified scuba diver but, prior to the departure of the vessel ‘Paspaley II’ from Broome on 12 April 2012, did not have any experience as a drift diver. However, Mr Hampton had passed a medical examination and successfully completed a pearl diving induction course in Darwin in February 2012.
On the first day of diving on 13 April 2012, Mr Hampton carried out nine drift dives without incident. On 14 April 2012, Mr Hampton reported to the Head Diver that he had surfaced during an earlier dive when his visibility was reduced after the sea floor was disturbed.
Later, Mr Hampton was carrying out his eighth drift dive for the day in up to 15 metres of water when a crew member on board saw that he had surfaced prematurely. The skipper was notified and thought that Mr Hampton was continuing with the dive when he disappeared below the surface. The skipper decided to call off the dive, signalling to the other divers to return by striking the boat’s ladder with a hammer.
A deckhand began pulling Mr Hampton’s heavy airline towards the vessel. When Mr Hampton appeared at the boat, he was unconscious and was pulled aboard by crew members and other divers who, by then, had re-surfaced. There were attempts to revive Mr Hampton. Witnesses say it took between five and 10 minutes, or more, for Mr Hampton to be brought to the back of the boat.
At the time of tragedy, the Paspaley Pearling Company did not have a written emergency procedure for the rescue and retrieval of an incapacitated diver from the water, and the crew on board the vessel had not practised any emergency drills in preparation for such an event.
A WorkSafe investigation found that the company could have put in place a number of practicable measures for the retrieval of an incapacitated diver from the water and then provide them with emergency assistance, including:
- a procedure which identified the roles of each crew member and steps to be taken by the crew, the divers and the skipper in an emergency; and/or
- a procedure which treated as an emergency any instance where a diver re-surfaced during a dive and did not immediately make a positive signal; and/or
- a crew member to be positioned at the back of boat, near emergency equipment, who has the task of keeping watch over the divers and to enter the water to provide assistance to an incapacitated diver; and/or
- providing employees with training and information in the use of the emergency procedures and conduct regular practice drills; and/or
- providing and maintaining resuscitation equipment, such as defibrillator.
WorkSafe WA Commissioner Lex McCulloch said divers are operating in a hazardous working environment, so require an effective emergency plan to be in place.
“Working underwater is a high risk operation with potentially fatal consequences if anything goes wrong,” Mr McCulloch said.
“Employers should have procedures which quickly identify a diver in trouble and facilitate a retrieval of the diver from the water on to the boat.”
Soon after the fatality, the company introduced standard operating procedures and an emergency plan which allocates a role to each crew member for the recovery of an incapacitated drift driver, either underwater or on the surface. One crew member is tasked with keeping watch during the dive and another is capable of being a rescue swimmer. Rescue and resuscitation equipment is located at the back of the boat and emergency drills are practised.
Further information on workplace safety can be obtained by telephoning WorkSafe on 1300 307877 or visit the website at www.worksafe.wa.gov.au.
Media contact: Candace Beilby 6551 1930 or 0411 258 721 (media enquiries only)
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