Choosing Safety

In the Fall 2014 issue of Alert Diver, we ran an article titled “A Culture of Dive Safety” (Expert Opinions). The article’s purpose was to promote a dialogue in the recreational diving community about the role of the social context in dive safety. Throughout 2015 we will continue this conversation with various leaders in diving. In this issue, Karl Shreeves, technical development executive at the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), shares his thoughts on the safety culture in recreational diving today.

In many ways we do have a culture of dive safety: Even though we sometimes see departures from recommended practices, the incident rate would be far higher were the cultural norms in diving less focused on safety. Still, we are always striving to improve, and to that end I think it’s worth looking at how “affective” education can help promote our cultural safety values.

Affective education is concerned with values, attitudes and how we teach people to make good choices. Teaching knowledge and skills can be fairly straightforward, but it is much more difficult to influence how people apply their skills and knowledge. For example, school systems teach children about the risks of smoking, and almost all students demonstrate that they understand these risks when tested. Nonetheless, every year, as illogical as it is, a substantial number of youths take up smoking. Why?

Role-model behavior is one of the most important influences on people’s decisions. Within any culture, people tend to follow the example of respected leaders, so it makes sense that respected dive leaders who exemplify conservative diving behavior should lead a culture of dive safety. A major role of training organizations should be to identify and either retrain or expel instructors who do not follow training standards. PADI engages in these practices by administering random post-training surveys. Most of the training organizations communicate with each other, which makes it difficult for a particularly recalcitrant instructor to continue teaching by simply affiliating with a different certifying agency.

Social pressure exerts influence on our choices, for better or worse, and proper dive training assists positive social pressure and resists negative pressure. For example, beginning divers learn depth limits appropriate to their experience and training in their courses. All else being equal, beginners are more likely to heed recommendations to follow the limits than to heed recommendations to ignore them. Still, as the smoking example shows us, “all else being equal” is a huge qualifier, and there’s a limit to what training alone can do. Although it would be best for people to avoid being influenced by social pressure to make poor choices, a culture of dive safety can thrive only if we use social pressure to model and enforce values that promote diver health and well-being.

Saying we should be role models is another way of saying we shouldn’t be hypocrites. If you agree that established limits are important for safety, then follow those limits. If you agree that divers should be certified before engaging in certain activities, don’t engage in those activities unless you are certified. If you agree that certain equipment should be mandatory for certain types of diving, don’t do that type of diving without the mandatory gear — no matter who you are.

Everyone in a culture either enforces the cultural values or else works against them. We enforce values by exerting social pressure on those who don’t comply, or we undermine the values by exerting social pressure on those who do. To enforce safety values, we should refuse to dive with people who don’t honor those values, and we should speak out against any unsafe recommendations. We should also welcome and invite safety-related questions at any time. Making people feel as though they can’t raise questions or challenge dive plans undermines the safety values we would like to promote.

I was once on a dive boat in a group of six divers when a respected dive leader asked us to check out a site at 130 feet. It was a repetitive dive with moderate current, and I considered it within my capabilities. However, when I learned that the boat did not have enough line to anchor and that we would “freeboat-drift” the dive, I felt uncomfortable and let the dive leader know. To his credit, he said, “OK, let’s plan something different.” We renegotiated the plan and made the dive without a hitch.

Woman teaches dive safety to two seated people

After the dive, several others in the group confided that they were glad I had spoken up. I was probably the best prepared diver on that boat, but none of the others had said anything. Why was I the one to protest? Obviously, something about the situation made them feel as though they shouldn’t object. We must all actively participate in creating a culture in which people feel confident not only in their dives but also in their decisions to change a dive plan. Every one of us can proactively enhance the culture of dive safety in this way.

If we want a model for our culture of dive safety, we can look to the early cave-diving community. Once cave-diver training and certification became established, that community took a hard line on its cultural safety values. Cave diving by noncertified individuals was simply not tolerated within the ranks. No one in the community would cave dive with someone who lacked the proper gear or training, and the social pressure was biased toward safety.

The “anyone can cancel any dive at any time for any reason” philosophy was born in this era and remains today, reinforced by an attitude that you have failed if you even think you may have a problem and don’t call the dive. Your buddies might even mildly berate you for not being willing to cancel a dive if you feel uncomfortable about it. After the inception of formalized cave-diver training and the establishment of that community, more than 20 years elapsed before a certified cave diver died in a cave, which is remarkable for such an advanced diving technique. Even today, fatalities among certified cave divers are infrequent. (There have been hundreds of diver deaths in caves, but more than 90 percent of the fatalities were not certified cave divers.)

The bottom line is that if we want to maintain and improve our culture of dive safety, all we have to do is choose to dive safely. We must do what we’ve been trained to do: set and follow good examples, speak up when things don’t seem right, and refuse to dive with anyone who does not do the same. It really is that simple.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2015