Hazmat diving for Public Safety
Diving is an incredible adventure full of wonderful sights and experiences for everyone who ventures to explore that part of our world. However, for some dedicated professionals the water isn’t that pristine body that encompasses beauty and exploration but rather a harsh working environment pitted with potential hazards seldom addressed by the recreational community. In fact, the water itself has become a formidable opponent to safe diving operations for several groups of divers.
Public safety and commercial dive units have had to address the potential risks associated with operating in specific bodies of water; due to a plethora of contaminants. Contaminants can come in the form of organic and inorganic compounds, viral and bacterial strains, chemical and radiological pollution and manmade waste. Ironically, the same compounds you would expect to find in a common household commode are the same compounds surrounding you every time you enter the water: feces, urine, bacteria, viruses and chemical pollutants.
Contamination and pollution have existed since the dawn of mankind. By-products of civilization have often been washed or thrown into the water or through rain fall found their way into the watershed. California divers have a term for the first rainfall of the season, known as the first flush. The first flush refers to the high level of contaminants being washed into the waters. During this time the level of pollution is so high that it can create a health risk to the divers. During this time diving operations are generally suspended until the level of contaminants dilutes to safer concentrations. In other parts of the world, divers are exposed to agricultural waste and run-off, chemical manufacturing deposits and even amoebas and small bacterium.
Contamination also takes several other forms, more common to today’s society. Trash, illegal dumping and carelessness create several complications for public safety divers. Animal carcasses, trash and refuse are often dumped into the water to avoid proper disposal or clean-up. The recovery of human remains is of utmost importance, as this is a primary role of most public safety units. Necrotic tissues, voided bowels, gastric juices, etc.., all expose the diver to potential blood-borne pathogens. Ironically, any environments where animal carcasses have been deposited pose the same risks.
Several public safety dive teams have instituted a water testing and collection aspect to their dive operations. Units are collecting water samples and maintaining them for testing procedures, should divers become ill or suffer any acute onset of illness. Other units have employed a working relationship with their local department of water quality to have them test the water prior to any dive operation. Any attempt to collect and test the water quality is commendable. However, in some cases even the collection phase can destroy the ability to test for certain contaminants, like fecal coliforms. Another complication is that water quality can change from day to day. Dive teams are encouraged to perform periodic testing on all of the bodies of water in their area and maintain a written log for review and recordkeeping purposes. Finally, and most frustrating, divers generally do not actually dive when performing operations. Divers generally travel through the water column to the bottom where they spend a lot of time in or on the sediment. Heavy metals and items with higher specific gravities settle in this environment and therefore the levels of concentrations can vary greatly. General water collection from the surface does not allow for water quality testing throughout the water column or sediment concentrations. Dive teams can effectively enter into a working agreement with soil management departments in their state to inspect and evaluate sediment samples collected during diving operations.
Public safety divers cannot extensively test for all of the contaminants potentially present in the dive environment. However, they can mitigate potential exposure concerns by employing effective personal protective equipment measures.
Contaminants can enter the body through several avenues: inhalation, ingestion, absorption and injection modes. Inhalation is the largest and easiest manner for the introduction of a contaminant into the divers’ body and can easily be mitigated by the use of a full face mask. It is recommended to use a positive pressure full face mask for diving where gaseous concentrations may be high at or immediately above the waterline. The use of standard second stage regulators is forbidden for any contaminated water operations as they do not provide any protection against inhalation complications. Full face masks can also mitigate ingestion issues, as water cannot enter the divers’ mouth and nose while wearing such a unit properly. Absorption can be managed effectively by utilizing a dry suit instead of a wetsuit. Dry suits keep the water from contacting the skin. As your skin has millions of pores, orifices and openings; removing water contact is the number one priority. Not all dry suits are equal. Cloth based and neoprene suits can by their design trap small concentrations of contaminants in the fabric, which may never release from the suit, even after decontamination. Divers operating in these environments tend to prefer vulcanized rubber, polyurethane an even the newer NITEC material, designed by Trelleborg/Viking. In addition, dry hoods, glove systems and attached boots are all mandatory additional items for dry suits being used in these campaigns. Finally and often overlooked are injection complications. Divers are continually exposed to rough edges, sharp materials, exposed metals, fish hooks and other complications when diving. Adding gloves, knee and shin guards, work type soles on boots and even over suits can aid in avoiding potentially dangerous punctures to your dive system while operating in polluted waters.
As important to mitigating exposure by proper personal protective equipment, teams need to research and employ decontamination procedures for all dive operations. Decontamination can be easily performed by topside personnel by employing common available anti bacterial, anti-viral cleaning solutions, cleaning solutions that break down oil and grease solutions and fresh water. It is important that the diver be scrubbed form head to toe while still encapsulated and then allowed to undress one piece of equipment at a time. The equipment can be cleaned then laid out to dry, inspected in the field and then removed to a clean location for finite cleaning. Finite cleaning entails the disassembly of all equipment to its nuts and bolts and then performing cleaning to each item. Disassembly and reassembly should only be done by properly trained technicians.
Tenders and surface support should also employ personal protective equipment to avoid exposure to run-off from the diver. Tenders should wear protective suits, respiratory protection, eyewear, gloves and boots during all decontamination procedures. These items need to be cleaned and inspected exactly like the divers’ equipment and gear.
At this time there has been no known record management system maintained on public safety divers regarding exposure and overall health. No one knows what the long term effect of operating in these environments is on the health of any diver. However, there have been several incidents recorded by public safety divers, commercial and military divers which suggest there is a health risk present. Therefore it is recommended that dive units maintain a written log of any dive/post dive medical issues or complications for all divers and tenders…to obtain this important data. Dive units can generate a running record on all divers by simply sending out an e-mail to the divers asking if they have had any complications after a dive or every week / bi-weekly. If the diver has any complications a written follow-up should be obtained and the record maintained in the divers personnel file. Please note that medical questions and information are HIPA sensitive, in the USA, and as a result are protected and private.
Diving in potentially contaminated water is hazardous and challenging. However, with the employment of proper equipment, training and planning these operations can be performed safely, proficiently and professionally. Every dive operation encountered by public safety divers should be considered a dive in polluted waters and as such the safety of the unit should be the paramount concern. Dive units can effectively manage and mitigate risks, obtain running records and maintain health monitoring information by employing simple measures. The intent is to make sure the divers are safe and at the end of their career get to go home because they want to, not because they have to.
Michael S. Glenn is the Instructor / Coordinator, Crime Scene Technologies at North Carolina Justice Academy in Salemburg, NC