Company fined £380k for endangering divers

County Court of Victoria, Melbourne - company fined (Canley)
County Court of Victoria, Melbourne (Canley)

An Australian diving company has been fined $730,000 (c£382,000) for repeatedly putting its employees at risk.

Underwater Inspection Services (UIS) of Doveton, which conducts water-tank and irrigation systems inspection and repairs, pleaded guilty in the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne to what were described as a string of life-threatening health and safety offences. 

Seven charges had been brought under the Occupational Health & Safety Act, based on five jobs the company had carried out between May and August 2018. 

In one case, a female diver on an umbilical line became stuck after crawling into a 1m-wide, 3.5m-long irrigation culvert, reported health and safety agency WorkSafe Victoria. 

Her umbilical snagged outside the culvert, leaving her unable to do more than lie in the murky water with rats swimming around her. There was no response to the calls for help she made using communications system, but after 15 minutes she succeeded in manoeuvring herself backwards to escape.

WorkSafe’s investigation found that the woman’s back-up diver had not been adequately trained to effect a rescue and was unfamiliar with the ill-fitting drysuit, mask and surface-supplied breathing apparatus supplied.

‘Told workers to lie’

After employees had tried telling their director that they were uncomfortable with certain tasks they were given, in August two of them decided that they would call WorkSafe. The agency says that during its investigation, UIS told its workers to lie about their levels of experience and training.

“Diving is inherently hazardous, with deadly risks such as asphyxiation and drowning, making such a cavalier approach to safety especially egregious,” WorkSafe executive director of health & safety Dr Narelle Beer told the court. “WorkSafe won’t hesitate to prosecute any duty-holder who displays such blatant disregard for their workers’ safety.”

According to a report on the court proceedings by ABC, Judge Michael O’Connell said that one employee had regularly noticed problems with ill-fitting diving suits, helmets, gloves and masks while working at UIS. 

When the worker had asked company owner Kent Bedford, 53, why UIS employed unqualified divers, he was told that “the laws in Victoria are grey and do not stipulate that divers must be commercial divers”.

But Judge O’Connell said that there was evidence that Bedford and, by extension, UIS were aware of “the risks and dangers associated with commercial diving and the need for appropriate control measures”. 

Exposed to workplace risks

Explaining that the substantial fine imposed was intended to flag up the risk of exposing staff to workplace dangers, the judge fined UIS $600,000 for recklessly engaging in conduct that placed workers in danger of serious injury or drowning, $70,000 for failing to provide necessary training for workers to perform their tasks safely, and $60,000 for failing to provide safe systems of work.

“We have many techniques and equipment that other companies don’t – some of them developed by our principal underwater inspector during his 24-year career performing underwater inspections all over the world,” says UIS on its website. 

“Our most important quality though is our deep understanding of the importance of being extremely thorough in what we do – the mantra at most dive companies is ‘time is money’ – for us though accuracy and thoroughness is far more important than time.”

Also on Divernet: Operator fined £100,000 for UK diver's death, Company fined for sting ray death, Scuba centre fined for schoolboys' CO poisoning, £900 fine for operator that lost four divers, 12 violations preceded golfball diver's death


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