Diving as a Factor in Offshore Oil and Gas Development (Part 4)

The diving bell provides physical protection for the diver and a more comfortable environment

within which to undergo decompression. However, though it enables the diver to descend to

deeper depths and facilitates the return to the surface, it does not significantly alter the time on

the bottom. The major breakthrough in that area came in 1957 when the director of the Navy’s

Submarine Medical Center demonstrated that the body’s tissues would become completely

saturated with inert gas within 24 hours so that the period required for decompression for any

dive of that duration or longer would be the same (Zinkowski 1976). In the 1960’s when the

concept was applied widely, the limits of both depth and time expanded exponentially. Military,

scientific, and commercial interests converged in a period of rapid research and development of

equipment, gas mixtures, and forms of work organization. According to the general

superintendent of one of the industry leaders at the time, “No industry today can boast of more

rapid technological development than commercial diving” (Morrissey 1966, page 88).

Saturation diving systems are themselves complex environments, and their development required

parallel development of analyzers to read partial pressure of oxygen (systems were developed to

include both galvanic and polarographic types of analyzers); controllers to maintain oxygen

levels; and analyzers for carbon dioxide (infrared); carbon monoxide (infrared); helium (thermal

conductivity); nitrogen (computation of difference); and relative humidity (electric hygrometric)

(UST 1968, page 41). Within the diving bell, scrubbers kept the moist atmosphere ventilated;

rack operators monitored readouts to safeguard against carbon dioxide and oxygen poisoning;

and emergency gas bottles were installed to offer a few minutes of air in an emergency (Seib


These technological achievements introduced a host of changes in work organization and the

social environment within which diving took place. The expense of constructing, operating, and

maintaining saturation systems increased the capital needed to remain at the forefront of the

industry. Small companies were either absorbed by larger ones or had to restrict their work to

shallow environments. They had a hard time attracting divers when the innovation and recordsetting

was occurring elsewhere.

Companies gained greater control over the divers and their pay. Prior to saturation diving, with

decompression time tied to depth and time spent under pressure, deep work was done via bounce

dives wherein divers stayed on the bottom only a short period of time. Pay was tied to depth, so

divers could make huge sums of money in relatively little time. Both physiological and financial

factors limited the depths to which divers could go and the time they would remain there.

Saturation diving removed many of the constraints and set up new dynamics between divers and

their employers. “With saturation diving and almost unlimited working time at depth, diving

performance is now being judged on how long a period of time divers are in the water – that is,

20 hours a day in the water is somehow ‘better’ than 16 hours a day, even when less actual work

has been performed…(O)perators of lockout submersibles welcome a more accurate, qualitative

evaluation of work performed, and they are motivated to provide the performance that this

approach demands” (Duggar and Majendie 1979, pages 92 and 94).

Saturation diving also changed the nature of the relationships among divers and between divers

and their supervisors. Instead of one diver working alone, as many as six divers and a tender

would work from a diving bell. Communication was managed via unscramblers on the radio and

took place between the divers and the topside supervisor and not with tenders in the bell. Tenders

were excluded from decisions about the work to discourage them from taking charge of the

operations; if the tender entered the water to aid the diver no one would be tending and two could

be lost (Seib 1976).

Despite, and perhaps because of, the continued experimentation and ongoing danger of the early

years, divers continued to dive. Long hours in a diving bell could be excruciatingly dull, so

divers sought distraction. Some divers became avid readers while others worked longer than their

allotted time to avoid getting back into the deck chamber.

The continued advance of exploration and drilling toward deeper waters provided the stimulus

for invention, innovation, and dissemination in commercial diving. These technological advances

that made it possible for humans to work at great depths below the water’s surface also made

way for new technologies associated with the construction, maintenance, and operation of oil and

gas platforms and pipelines. In the following section, a brief overview of the history and

development of underwater welding illustrates the links.

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