OSHA Standards and PSD Teams: Are We Really Exempt?

By Michael S. Glenn

Public Safety diving is an amalgam of several different and varying forms of diving which joins the best of recreational courses, scientific principles and commercial standards. However, one question which is often addressed is this: do public safety divers fall under the standards and guidelines as laid out under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)? Simply stated, YES public safety and emergency response divers are governed under several different guidelines as outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). However, some provisions must be in place first.

OSHA is the governing body for “workplace safety”. Workplace safety is outlined as a relationship between employee and employer. As such, public safety and emergency dive units working directly under the control of an employer would be considered as being under OSHA’s control while dive team units and members from a private entity where there is no employee or employer relationship would not be initially considered under the control of OSHA. In addition, some states are not considered to be governed under OSHA jurisdictions as they have opted to create their own work place safety guidelines. These states are called State Plan States. State Plan States develop and enforce their own set of workplace safety guidelines. However, these standards must meet the same minimum standards that OSHA addresses or exceed them in order to be approved and institutionalized.

Public safety diving does not conform to one set platform for diving. As such, it is not traditionally governed under several standards in existence. In addition, the typical standard most divers reference when discussing OSHA adherence seems to be OSHA 29 CFR 1910.400 or Subpart T “Commercial Diving Standards”. While most readily recognize that within the first three paragraphs the standard simply states that this standard does not apply to public safety divers, this statement is somewhat misleading. Public safety divers operating in certain aspects may not be held to OSHA standards in whole. However, when conducting dives in waters where the current flow is over one knot (1kt. / 1.15mph) they are held to being tethered, as outlined in this standard. Further, when conducting salvage operations, where lift bags or lifting equipment is deployed, public safety divers are no longer working in a realm of public safety diving but in commercial salvage and again are held to the commercial standards as outlined in the OSHA guidelines.

While most discuss the commercial diving standards, OSHA outlines several other standards that everyone, including land based members, must adhere to. For example, OSHA Standard 29 CFR 1926.106, Working over or near water: Personal Protective and Life Saving Equipment, clearly outlines that everyone working from boat or land in close proximity of the water must wear a life vest. This single standard addresses anyone standing or working near the water’s edge from tenders, surface support, decontamination teams, medical assistance, etc.

In 29 CFR 1910, Respiratory Protection: Personal Protective Equipment, the standard states: “In the control of those occupational diseases caused by breathing air contaminated with harmful dusts, fogs, fumes, mists, gases, smokes, sprays, or vapors, the primary objective shall be to prevent atmospheric contamination. This shall be accomplished as far as feasible by accepted engineering control measures (for example, enclosure or confinement of the operation, general and local ventilation, and substitution of less toxic materials). When effective engineering controls are not feasible, or while they are being instituted, appropriate respirators shall be used pursuant to this section.” (OSHA 29 CFR 1910.134 (a) (1)) Further, the standard outlines that the respirator must be fit tested to the wearer. Several agencies, across the nation have interpreted that this standard applies to the use of their full face masks utilized in potentially contaminated water environments.

Another guideline laid out under OSHA that emergency response divers fall under includes 29 CFR 1910.1030, Bloodborne Pathogens Standard; this guideline sets out the minimum requirements for protection, exposure mitigation and reporting practices for anyone who can potentially come in contact with blood or biological pathogenic materials, as a diver will when performing human remains recoveries.

OSHA standards cover a vast majority of topics and details and one is hard pressed to find some aspect of the diving profession that is not covered under at least one guideline. However, what is important to remember is that OSHA’s guidelines are not enacted to harm or hamper an organization but to help protect them and their employees from unnecessary risk, injury or harm. This holds true for public safety dive teams. Regardless of your state’s position, as an OSHA controlled state or a State Plan State with its own occupational safety organization, every diver must meet some form of OSHA compliance in some form of its operations. In addition, civilian and non-affiliated public safety teams may find themselves operating under the control of a government or public body and would again find themselves needing to comply. It is the divers, dive team leaders and governing agency’s responsibility and duty to know their respective state’s position and guidelines. Knowing the guidelines and implementing their practice routinely will assist in the overall safety and professionalism of the team.

For further information on OSHA guidelines, please contact your local states department of occupational safety and health, or go to: https://www.osha.gov/. For research into specific codes, guidelines or topics go to: https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owasrch.search_form?p_doc_type=STANDARDS&p_toc_level=1&p_keyvalue=1910

About the author

Michael began his law enforcement career in July, 1990 and has served approximately 20 years as a law enforcement officer with several law enforcement agencies in North Carolina. Michael has enjoyed working briefly as a patrol officer but has devoted most of his career to criminal investigations and crime scene investigations.

Michael assumed the role of criminal investigator and crime scene investigator while employed with the Tabor City Police Department and maintained that position until 1998. He left Tabor City Police Department as a Detective Lieutenant and Assistant Chief of Police to join the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office. Michael was employed by Columbus County as a criminal investigator and crime scene investigator. Michael was initially assigned as the domestic violence investigator and later transferred to general crimes, fraud and cyber crimes. In addition, Michael was one of two detectives working on administrative investigations. Michael designed and established the department’s forensics processing lab and built the department’s working CSI program. In addition, Michael was instrumental in establishing the sheriff’s office underwater crime scene unit and acted as the dive team supervisor throughout his employment with the department. While employed with the sheriff’s office, Michael was instrumental in aiding in the building and equipping of the department’s first evidence processing facility and in establishing the basic protocols for evidence processing and submission.

Michael joined the North Carolina Justice Academy staff in February of 2007. In addition to his Academy duties, he also serves as a reserve police officer within Columbus County. Michael’s primary areas of concentration are in forensic technology courses including: basic and advanced crime scene investigation, fingerprint classification and comparison, chemical development of latent evidence, implementation strategies for forensic light source technologies deployment and incident reconstruction. Michael also serves as an instructor in underwater crime scene investigation and public safety diving. Michael is a certified scuba instructor and has authored several unique specialty programs in the field for public safety divers. In addition, Michael has been an invitational member on the US Navy’s Contaminated Water Diving Technical Working Group, as well as having published articles in H2Ops magazine and Law Enforcement Technologies on diving topics. Currently Michael has 3 training manuals in print and one on-line diving course for testifying in court for public safety divers.

Michael has been awarded his Advanced Law Enforcement Certificate from the North Carolina Sheriff’s Training and Standards Division, as well as, completed the North Carolina Justice Academy’s Public Safety Diver’s Certificate Program.

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