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.