What lies beneath: training the next generation of deepwater offshore divers

23 June 2014 (Last Updated June 23rd, 2014 03:00)

Training offshore divers and ROV pilots using a leading-edge ROV vessel converted from a car ferry, The Underwater Centre is one of the world’s pre-eminent subsea training facilities. We talk to general manager Steve Ham about the mental and physical demands of offshore work, plugging the skills gap and advances in Nitrox diving.

What lies beneath: training the next generation of deepwater offshore divers

Tritan XL

Steve Ham is general manager of the Underwater Centre, which operates specialist training courses for commercial divers and ROV pilots, and helps companies undertake vital sea trials in Fort William, Scotland and Tasmania, Australia. Ham is also vice-chairman of Energy North, a non-profit trade group comprising over 200 members from the oil and gas, renewable energy and nuclear markets.

Julian Turner: Please begin by describing the evolution of The Underwater Centre.

Steve Ham: The Underwater Centre was established in the mid-1970s to serve the booming North Sea oil industry and also to address the relative lack of diving expertise. A lot of untrained and not particularly well qualified divers were being exposed to extremely hazardous situations at that time.

In response, the Manpower Services Commission, now the Health and Safety Executive (HSE),created a set of diving standards and The Underwater Centre was the first facility to train divers for the North Sea industry. We were privatised during the mid-1980s and since then we have developed additional courses such as ROV training and continue to provide a unique facility for testing subsea equipment.

"We’ve built in ROV workshops with the aim of making the training as realistic and lifelike as possible, therefore delivering a contextual experience environment."

For offshore work – especially construction projects – we mostly train closed bell, saturation divers; however, we are one of the few facilities in the world that provides both air and closed bell diver training. We also have a centre in Tasmania, Australia, that delivers the same courses, under the Australian Diver Accreditation Scheme (ADAS), and there’s only one other facility in the world that does that training. So, not many people do what we do.

JT: What attributes does a modern offshore diver need to work in such a hazardous profession?

SH: Diving is merely a means of getting to work. What you’re paid for is what you do at the dive site itself and that is, in many cases, a manual job. Offshore divers therefore require excellent manual skills and must be self-reliant, but they also have to be excellent communicators and team players.

In the 1970s, a lot of people with good trade skills were recruited from the mining, engineering and the construction industries; however, the guys we train nowadays do not automatically possess those competencies, so the course now incorporates more advanced technical training, including add-on elements such as rigging, cutting, welding and inspection to further increase candidates’ skill sets.

Recently, we added bolt tensioning, one of the key subsea tasks, as a core element of our diver training, working in partnership with a company named Stork to make sure we possessed the right equipment to enable us to add that in while not passing on any additional costs to the candidates.

Diving is a challenging job, but thanks to a robust and constantly evolving safety regime, it’s not as dangerous as it once was. It is highly controlled now and bodies such as the International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) continue to pursue safety very vigorously in this part of the world.

JT: Has The Underwater Centre adapted its diver training courses to serve deepwater projects?

SH: When you talk about really deep water, beyond 200-250m, then that precludes diving altogether. As a result, the demand for remotely operated vehicle (ROV) training – and the demand from ROV companies for more advanced skills – has increased over the last few years. There is definitely a looming skills deficiency there.

In the past we only had small observation-class ROVs to train in. Now, thanks to collaboration with the industry, we employ a substantial Triton XL work-class ROV vessel converted from a car ferry, which offers a very different kind of capability. We’ve built in ROV workshops as well with the aim of making the training as realistic and lifelike as possible, therefore delivering a contextual experience environment.

"A lot of untrained and not particularly well qualified divers were being exposed to extremely hazardous situations."

As a result, the candidates that graduate from the course will be much more prepared to enter the industry, and be more effective contributers at an early stage in their career.. We also plan to introduce courses to help ROV personnel accelerate through to the higher levels. Our first course started in June and represents a massive increase in the level of ROV training now available to the offshore industry.

Similarly, Nitrox diving offers greater flexibility and more bottom time, and is now the preferred offshore air diving discipline in the UK and around the world. Our brand new Nitrox diving course is designed to give supervisors, technicians and divers in the UK and overseas the confidence to participate in and control Nitrox diving operations, which are more sophisticated than straight air diving, and are controlled, designed and managed in a more effective way.

JT: What types of specialist skills does the modern offshore diver require?

SH: Essentially, commercial diving encompasses anything that is done underwater and nowadays there are subsea geologists, archaeologists, scientists and cameramen. Oil and gas is probably the most lucrative sector, but there are many other disciplines. Installing offshore wind turbines has evolved into a major industry, particularly in the UK and Europe, and the UK is also surrounded by a vast number of shipwrecks, so there is an active role for subsea archaeologists.

What we see now is that divers tend to focus on one or two specific areas. Typically, UK candidates leave our school and enter the inshore civil engineering sector, where they cut their teeth in canals, harbours and lakes, before eventually moving into the offshore wind and oil and gas industries.

Most candidates leave The Underwater Centre with an HSE certificate – arguably the most respected ticket worldwide – in scuba, surface applied and surface applied top-up, plus additional certificates in tools training, subsea construction and underwater inspection, having completed a 13-week course. These internal standards enable graduates to go on and do inspection training through other external bodies.

Similarly for the closed bell training, UK candidates leave with an HSE certificate and an Australian Diver Accreditation Scheme (ADAS) ticket in Australia, which are pretty much recognised worldwide. Other international jurisdictions including Canada, Norway and France have fairly broad agreements about training and qualifications which correspond to the HSE standards developed in the UK in the 1970s.

"In many scenarios divers remain the most cost-effective, adaptable and flexible means of working subsea."

JT: In your opinion, will advancements in subsea technology eventually make divers obsolete?

SH: During the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about how ROVs were going to take over. ROVs have undoubtedly become more sophisticated and capable. For many projects – especially those not on the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) and deeper than 250m, an ROV is the only solution and that’s where a lot of the new oil and gas finds are in countries such as Africa and Brazil.

However, there is still a vast amount of subsea infrastructure and oil and gas being extracted at depths up to 200-250m and I don’t see that diminishing in the near future. ROVs are an absolutely vital tool, but then so are divers and in many scenarios they remain the most cost-effective, adaptable and flexible means of working subsea.

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