Diver safety risked in ray-death aquarium
More than four years after a scuba diver died after being stung by a ray in a Singapore oceanarium, the company behind the now-closed facility has been found guilty of lapses in safe diving procedures.
The diver, Philip Chan, 62, was senior supervisor at Underwater World Singapore (UWS) on Sentosa Island. His 25 years of experience at the facility were relied upon in the facility’s day-to-day diving operations, though it now seems that the way in which he and his team operated was too informal.
On 4 October, 2016, Chan and a team of five were attempting to capture four leopard whiptail rays for transfer to another facility, as reported at the time on Divernet . The oceanarium had closed in June, but the divers had been retained to help move its 2500 occupants to new homes.
A coroner’s inquiry five months later, also reported on Divernet, heard that the team had with some difficulty persuaded the last of the rays out of deep water onto a shallow holding platform. Chan had climbed onto the platform but the ray had reversed into him and he had collapsed.
The other divers found him unresponsive, a 22cm barb protruding from his chest. This had punctured his heart and aorta, and he had died in hospital from blood-loss and heart failure an hour later.
The incident had been investigated by Singapore’s Safety & Health Inspectorate, and the coroner had recorded a verdict of tragic misadventure. Despite long-term captivity, he said, wild animals that felt threatened could “revert to their hard-wired natural instinct to reflexively lash out and inflict fatal or severe injuries”, and an animal-handler’s expertise, skill and experience would not “invariably” keep him safe.
Now a district court has heard that safety procedures implemented by UWS for its diving-related works were inadequate. Lapses included absence of risk-assessment for capturing animals, and lack of emergency recovery procedures.
17 January 2021
UWS’s standard operating procedures had covered tank-cleaning and feeding though not the capture of animals by divers. But the court found that procedures for diving supervision, maintaining look-outs and diver-surface communications had been inadequate not only during the fatal incident but generally when carrying out cleaning and feeding tasks.
There had been no standby divers in case of underwater emergencies, and no formal pre-diving equipment checks.
UWS, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Haw Par Corporation, has admitted one count of failing to ensure its employees’ safety.
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower’s prosecutor claims that four serious breaches of the Workplace Safety & Health Act call for a fine of at least Singapore $150,000 (around £83,000).
UWS has pleaded for a fine of less than a quarter of that sum, claiming that Chan’s death was the result of a “freak accident” and was not directly related to the charge. Sentencing is to be carried out on 25 February.