Scuba divers doing it right

Scuba divers doing it right

Sitting on the patio of a water bungalow in the Maldives, I observed guests snorkelling and dive boats leaving and returning to the island each day. So, I thought to myself, what a perfect place to write an article based on divers doing things right.

I had already written an article related to scuba diving some years before, but my views relating to safety have changed considerably in the ensuing four years – away from traditional safety, towards a greater focus on its psychological and cultural elements. So, I decided it was a good opportunity to write an up-to-date piece.

Learning rather than training

During a two-week preparation period for this Maldivian diving vacation, I observed my wife, Aneta, go through the training sessions for her Open Water scuba diving qualification. Throughout the two weeks of theoretical sessions and exams, as well as many hours in the water, I kept thinking about how different things were during the training and the practical sessions, compared to how industry does things in traditional risk and safety.

Unlike induction safety training in many companies, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) training programme focuses on embodied learning and understanding. Rather than just a tick and flick exercise, the modules provide reflective and connected theory, with short videos highlighting critical and essential elements, and engagement connected to motivation and the psychology of goals. Without meaning and purpose, there is no motivation to learn; each theory section ends with a test based on knowledge anchored in an understanding of the realities of diving.

While PADI is a business involving upselling like any other, this is not a crash course to get the newly inspired diver into the water as soon as possible, with the main plan of selling them scuba equipment or more courses. It is about the person, and making sure that in all dives to follow, the student will be able to conduct themselves in a safe manner, feeling relaxed and enjoying a journey that communicates with the embodied mind (whole person): head, heart, and gut.

Risk makes sense

I remember a friend of mine asking me a few years back how I – employed in the safety and health field – could partake in such a high-risk sport. Yes, scuba diving is high-risk; each dive presents a degree of risk (despite the best-laid plans). These include equipment malfunction, getting lost underwater, suffering decompression sickness (“the bends”) or pulmonary embolisms from ascending too fast, running out of air, becoming claustrophobic during wreck dives, or panicking among an abundance of sharks.

There is also the slight risk of being attacked by an underwater creature. Although this is rare, it’s not impossible – remember the wildlife TV presenter, Steve Irwin (crocodile hunter), who was fatally injured in 2016 by a stingray*.

Risk is not a bad thing; there can be absolutely no learning without risk, and neither can there be learning without motion. In Dr Robert Long’s book, Risk Makes Sense, he mentions: “Effective thinking and acting is not only about the preservation of life, but the living of life.”

Can one imagine a life without risk? There would never be any learning, experiencing, or enjoyment, never mind the need to ban sports such as scuba diving, skydiving, motocross, and many others.

Principles of Social Psychology of Risk

The aim of this article is to apply some of the main principles of the social psychology of risk to scuba diving. It will therefore focus on workspace, headspace, and group space, as well as the embodied feeling one gets from participation.

Workspace: There are many rules, procedures, and training requirements in place that all divers are required to understand (embody), prior to being certified at a specific level. However, the difference between scuba diving and industry is that there is no “flooding” of information. The learning of diving is embodied because the information is not understood as just data – the information is motivational and inspirational because it is anchored to real goals.

The training does include theory but, with motion, real learning moves you somewhere. Therefore, after passing all of the online modules, assessments, and exams, Aneta was required to undergo almost two days of training and coaching in the pool. Lived learning, experiential learning, and felt learning trump head learning (cognitivism) any day.

I joined for the water sessions and observed the instructor explaining the requirements of each exercise and then demonstrating how it should be done. This was done on a one-to-one basis, thereby giving full attention (this is not always the case – a lone instructor can take up to four students at a time). Aneta was then required to conduct the exercises and was repeatedly coached until she could do them comfortably and correctly, without stress.

It made me think about safety induction training in industry, where people are packed into training rooms, flooded with information, some of it having no value whatsoever, disconnected from reality, non-motivational, boring, and with no focus on embodied understanding. In most cases, safety inductions offer no demonstrations and/or any sort of coaching – and make no allowance for trial and error learning until correct understanding is achieved.

Most safety inductions I have observed are just tick and flick exercises. Leaders then wonder why people do not follow the rules on site and learn hardly anything from inductions, with incidents occurring thereafter. Most inductions in safety I have seen are simply “death by PowerPoint” rather than learning through motion.

In diving, the best equipment for the dive is provided or owned to ensure that the diver is well prepared for the dive. There are various checks, however, that make sense and focus on the main issues.

Headspace: One of the most important aspects of diving is that the diver remains calm, never holds their breath whilst underwater, and feels comfortable prior to, during, and after the dive. No person is forced to enter or descend to the required depths if they do not feel comfortable.

When a diver experiences difficulties when descending or during the dive, be it pressure, failing to equalise, or being nervous, they are entitled to signal that they have a problem and ascend until comfortable and then either stop the dive or continue with the descent.

Diving groupthink is focused on people first; should someone call a time-out it is a norm that there is no blaming or bullying of the person. Because of this, divers feel comfortable to make that call. Most communication underwater is symbolic, using signs, gestures, and paralinguistics. So much of safety training and induction focuses on text. This is exacerbated by the fact that the audience often has low literacy levels.

Many companies inform employees and contractors that they have the right to refuse to work on grounds of safety and health. However, it is questionable how many do so. In many cases, failing to exercise their right is due to the culture and sub-cultures of the company, site, or team.

Funnily enough, I was watching a husband-and-wife team at the island’s dive centre, as they were preparing for their first open water dive after completing their theoretical training sessions. As they attempted to submerge in the shallow water the wife kept coming up, clearly showing signs of distress – she was not enjoying the experience at all. Sadly, the husband, who kept returning to the surface after her, started telling her that she was being (in his words) “stupid” and that she always gave up on a challenge.

My immediate thought was: “Wow, so much like traditional safety; he is blaming and bullying her to do what he wants to do.” At no stage did he consider that she was not liking the experience and was fearful of being underwater, breathing from a regulator. She eventually left the water in tears.

Group space: Group space is an important element of diving, if not the most important. It is a heuristic called the “buddy system”, where divers are paired with a partner for the dive. They are then responsible not only for their own safety before and during the dive, but also for their assigned buddy. This means that, prior to the dive, buddies check each other’s equipment and air supply. During the dive, they always remain close to each other, communicating with signs and checking that their buddy is feeling good and has suitable air pressure in their cylinder. Should any difficulties occur, they are required to support each other – be it slowing down, doing a safety stop, or providing an alternate air supply.

Before each dive, the divemaster would show dive teams the layout of the reef, explaining possible currents, types of fish, dive duration, safety stops, and much more. There was always a good discussion and group engagement to ensure learning and a safe dive for all. There is nothing as powerful in learning as sociality. A good example for safety is to move from safety talks (telling) to safety engagement sessions (listening and discussing).

The reason the “buddy system” works is that the culture in diving promotes things like support, responsibility, mutuality, and caring for each other. Conducting the activities of the “buddy system” develops habits, ensures continuous learning, reduces stress during the dive, and, importantly, develops a sense of trust between divers.

I always say that in most industry incidents, witnesses can provide details of what happened. The question then is why these witnesses didn’t stop the person working in an unsafe manner. I guess the answer comes back to culture and multiple unconscious pressures. Do leaders and those in the risk and safety field develop the trust, allow people to call time-out, encourage them to look after each other, and develop a sense of belonging and positive groupthink? Most often, the habits and demeanour of the safety industry unconsciously discourage open sharing or confession.

Embodied feeling

Scuba diving, like everything we do in life, has an embodied feeling. Some believe that all thoughts and feelings are brain-based, but the reality is that our experiences are embodied, impacting head, heart, and gut – the whole person. Scuba diving provides divers with a happy and excited embodied feeling and meets the meaning and need for purpose of those who want to learn.

One of the most important values in learning to dive is “connectedness”. What you learn is critical to diving – and your life depends on it. None of the information you receive is disconnected from what you are about to do and you will soon be tested experientially and practically on the relevance of that information. If it cannot be enacted and remains “head knowledge”, this is not learning.

Content is not learning. Propositions are not learning. Disconnected ideas are not learning. Why is it, then, that safety throws so much at people that is irrelevant, disconnected, and useless? Even if one considers for a second the legal outcomes of safety training, so little of it is actually a protection in court. Why are people bombarded with regulations that cannot be learned and, in the end, will be governed by legal experts, not safety?

The other main difference in learning to scuba dive is the focus on reducing the fear of risk and anxiety about compliance. There are no punishments for trial-and-error learning … no silly language, meaningless pyramids, or Swiss-cheese models. It’s all about connecting the person to their goal, their dream: to dive safely. Is this what we should be doing in safety?

* Ed’s Note: Marine animals may react defensively to threatening behaviour, including entering their territory. They may also be aggressive after habituation to feeding by humans. ‘Attacks’ are never unprovoked, although some large predators extremely rarely mistake humans for food. It should be noted that Steve Irwin regularly got very close to animals while filming and the stingray was simply reacting defensively to a perceived threat approaching from behind.

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
Prev KITE provides industrial technology solutions for KZN
Next Uplift any profession 

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.