What Is Scientific Diving?

Diver with camera

In 1975, in response to numerous accidents in the commercial diving sector, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, supported by the AFL-CIO, petitioned the Federal Government urging a development of commercial diving standards applicable to all professional diving operations. Given the employee-employer nature of the relationship between scientists and students and their universities, these standards would have impacted most scientific diving activities associated with academic and research institutions.

The American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) was formed by a handful of institutions long conducting scientific diving activities to voice community concerns that the impact OSHA’s Commercial Diving Standards presented to institutional scientific diving activities.

The AAUS submitted arguments to OSHA sighting the communities self-regulation and promulgation of consensual standards for more than 20 years as well as an accident incidence rate lower than the Commercial Diving Industry. Following extensive negotiation and Congressional Hearings, a final ruling was issued in November 1982, granting a scientific exemption.

OSHA has defined scientific diving (29 CFR Part 1910.402) as diving performed solely as a necessary part of a scientific, research, or educational activity by employees whose sole purpose for diving is to perform scientific research tasks.  Tasks usually associated with commercial diving such as but not limited to: placing or removing heavy objects underwater; inspection of pipelines and similar objects; construction; demolition; cutting or welding; or the use of explosives, are generally not considered exempted diving.

OSHA’s exemption for scientific diving from commercial diving regulations is further outlined in  CFR 29 Part 1910 Subpart T Appendix B:

  • The Diving Control Board consists of a majority of active scientific divers and has autonomous and absolute authority over the scientific diving program's operations.
  • The purpose of the project using scientific diving is the advancement of science; therefore, information and data resulting from the project are non-proprietary.
  • The tasks of the scientific diver are those of an observer and data gatherer.  Construction and trouble-shooting tasks traditionally associated with commercial diving are not included within scientific diving.
  • Scientific divers, based upon the nature of their activities, must use scientific expertise in studying the underwater environment and therefore, are scientists or scientists-in-training.
  • In addition, the scientific diving program shall contain at least the following elements (29 CFR Part 1910.401):
    1. Diving safety manual which includes at a minimum: procedures covering all diving operations specific to the program; procedures for emergency care, including recompression and evacuation; and criteria for diver training and certification.
    2. Diving control (safety) board, with the majority of its members being active divers, which shall at a minimum have the authority to: approve and monitor diving projects; review and revise the diving safety manual; assure compliance with the manual; certify the depths to which a diver has been trained; take disciplinary action for unsafe practices; and, assure adherence to the buddy system (a diver is accompanied by and is in continuous contact with another diver in the water) for SCUBA diving.

The AAUS produces and promulgates consensual standards for the training and certification of scientific divers and the operation of scientific diving programs.  

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography is a founding member of the AAUS and remains an organizational member in good standing.

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