Public Safety Dive or Salvage Dive

Let’s face it; public safety divers are called out to do all kinds of strange things. Why, because the people in the community (and the other departments) know that PS Divers work in some of the worst conditions and have a wide range of experience when it comes to accomplishing tasks both under and above the water. PS Divers currently work (in the US) under an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) exemption. While there is some debate on the finer points of this exemption, there is no doubt that some actions/dives performed are clearly outside of its provisions. But when is a call for a PS team exempt and when is it not exempt?

It is not uncommon for a department to be called out for a vehicle, aircraft or boat recovery. Generally, PS divers are requested because there are missing persons or they are trying to determine the cause of the crash/sinking. The team willingly packs up their gear and heads to the scene and in most cases, if the team has the training, recovers the vehicle, aircraft or boat and safely brings it to the surface for closer inspection. Exempt or non-exempt dive?

A call comes in saying, ‘we have bridge pillars that need to be inspected, can the team come out and do it’. The team, looking at this as a good training exercise, packs up their gear and drives to the location. Following all normal SOPs, they gear up at a slower pace, get in the water and inspect the pillars. They also take this opportunity to put a couple of the ‘new guys’ in the water and establish a baseline topography should they ever be called to this site again. Exempt or non-exempt?

The phone rings and it’s a familiar voice a friend of one of the team members. The caller says their boat sunk on its mooring in the river during a storm. He knew the team wanted to do some training exercises (search and recovery, light lifting etc.) would the team be interested in taking advantage of this opportunity? They discuss the options and decide the conditions are good, the team could use the training and it will save money, so they mobilize. Exempt or non-exempt?

Harbor patrol comes by the station and says they saw some suspicious activity near the docks, stating “we thought we saw bubbles where we do not normally see them”. As harbor patrol is a credible source of information, the team mobilizes and arrives within an hour. Dive briefing starts with observations from previous inspections and PS dive team members are assigned respective areas of search. Exempt or non-exempt?

The message here is that exempt and non-exempt dives, can sound very similar and both are beneficial to the team. It is always good to get training dives in, and providing a valuable service to the community is what you are there for. But there are the downsides to non-exempt calls as well; you need to be fully OSHA compliant for commercial diving activities and your department insurance may not be in effect leaving high liability exposure and no workers comp.

A basic rule to live by is: if it is not for potential saving of life, or limb or part of an investigative process, it is outside the OSHA exemption.

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3 replies
  1. Mark Phillips
    Mark Phillips says:

    There was a revision of the exemption released years ago. The exemption prior was confusing and was deemed “a grey area” of the OSHA standard for commercial diving. ANY time a question came up regarding OSHA and standards, we were guided to the grey area of the exemption. The PSD community was growing at the time and in their efforts to be more aware and educated on such things, created enough of a stir to cause the OSHA exemption to be rewritten and become more defined.

    The revision that came out is what is current today but because of the way it was written, some of the ABCs have different interpretations of it and once again, the OSHA exemption is questioned. The wording of “saving life or limb” is not in the written exemption but rather comes directly from OSHA as their guide to what THEY considered to be exempt. USE THIS AS YOUR GUIDE and you will always be right.

    ALL PSD teams need to read and understand the OSHA exemption and be aware of the difference between what is considered exempt and not exempt. If we can claim “investigative process” as well, then EVERY teams needs to be aware of their necessity to be working under their local law enforcement umbrella. Otherwise, you are just specially trained divers who are interfering with a crime scene….

  2. Wayne
    Wayne says:

    You are taking the food right out of the Commerical Diver mouth. He gets payed through his Company to do a Diving job such as recover a Car, Boat, Plane, that is not emanated threat to the environment or to save a life. The company that comes out to do the job are union workers and have to go by OHSA standards. They have the knowledge the tools and equipment to do the job They pay a hefty price on insurance to do the job It is better to used Surface Supply Air, commutations to a diver and be tether. They have Hardhats such as a Superlight or old Standby Navy MK5. Depending on the job there are strict rules that OHSA has in place so no diver Dies or get hurt during the job. As a Public Safety Diver is exempt from OSHA rules they should leave that job to a Professional Diver or Company.

    • Mark Phillips
      Mark Phillips says:

      Wayne, the original article was written in 2012. The reply I made at that same time was based on previous conversations I had with OSHA regarding Public Safety Divers and the relationship they had to OSHA.

      By 2015 there was so much misinformation being touted by our community and even some of the related agencies, I spent 6 months working to resolve the issue once and for all. I worked with OSHA directly and they provided me with the information I needed to finally translate and relay the material. EVERTHING that was produced was approved by OSHA before it ever went to print. Basically everything we thought and were doing was based on erroneous assumptions. – Mine included.

      Public Safety Divers are NOT exempt from OSHA and OSHA considers Public Safety Divers to be commercial divers.

      The purpose of the original article was to highlight that there is a difference between commercial and PSDiving. My original reply was a reminder that we were attempting to create a gray area to justify our work and pointed out that we are really working a crime scene.

      ALL of it is of historical reference value ONLY because it is mostly incorrect information. There is NO exemption for public safety divers. There is no wording in OSHA that identifies or defines what public safety diving is or any separation of genre offered between the commercial and PSDiving.

      We published the information February 2015 in PSDiver Magazine, Issue 112 which you can freely access here: .
      (All the resources we offer on the website are free)

      Or if you just want to review the article, you can access it through the ERDI blog at:

      Thanks for posting. You remind us of some of the issues that get swept aside in our conversations and that PSDivers should never perform a dive they are not properly trained, equipped and prepared to conduct.

      Mark Phillips


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