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August 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Diver Deaths Around the World

from the August, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The dive industry is tight-lipped about revealing fatalities and accidents, so it’s hard to know how many divers worldwide experience them. DAN has a hard time enough locating details about U.S. dive incidents for its annual report, and we ourselves had to make some guesstimates for our two-part series “How Many Divers Are There” in the May and June 2007 issues (read them online at Undercurrent). John Lippmann, executive director of DAN’s Asia-Pacific division in Melbourne, Australia, adds another piece to the puzzle by giving global risk estimates for dive fatalities and decompression illness, in a study published in the journal Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine.

To estimate dive accident rates within Australia for the country’s Department of Health, Lippmann wanted to compare them to other countries, so he looked at death and DCI rates published in studies done in Canada, the U.K., Japan and the U.S. Reviewing insurance records of DAN America members who died in accidents from 1997 to 2004, he calculated a death rate averaging 15 deaths per 100,000 divers, the highest rate in all the reviewed data. A search of Australian dive data calculated 8.5 deaths per 100,000 divers. A diver survey and coroner records of deaths at the popular U.K. quarry site Stoney Cove, led to a figure of 2.9 deaths per 100,000 divers there.

Because of how some other studies were formatted, Lippmann then had to calculate deaths per 100,000 dives. For Australian divers, the rate was 0.7. For U.K. divers, based in part on data from the British Sub-Aqua Club, it was 0.4. In Japan, based on tank fills and dive deaths in the U.S. military community in Okinawa, it was 1.3. Canada had a rate of 2.05, based on a 14-month study of tank fills in British Columbia.

Lippmann told Undercurrent the study’s focus was not to compare differences between countries, but the data makes him believe there’s not much difference in countries’ fatality rates. The differences are based on dive conditions and the level of controlled diving. “The Canadian and general U.K. data came from cold-water diving, generally more demanding and likely to lead to a higher accident rate. The exception is Stoney Cove, where the water is cold but the diving environment is well-controlled. Most Australia diving is in more temperate or tropical conditions, which are more conducive to safe diving.” He says the U.S. death rates are “not that high.”

The same observations apply to global risk estimates for DCI. Data for wreck dives in the Orkney Islands’ frigid Scapa Flow showed a rate of 188 incidents per 100,000 dives. In warmer waters, DAN America data for Caribbean dives had a rate of 19, and the Japan data was 13.4. But rates were lower for other cold-water areas: Canadian data showed a rate of 9.6, U.K. diver data was 5.2, and Stoney Cove was 3.9. Lippmann says that may be due somewhat to stricter dive training than what’s given in the States. “U.K. diver training is more rigorous and divers had to be more qualified. They traditionally had to go through a club system, although that’s dying out.”

One finding of Lippmann’s study is that it’s still no easier to calculate dive-related incidents. “The more you look at the data, the more problems you find with how rates are reported. It’s like comparing apples to oranges – dive incidents must be compared at similar times and rates, so collecting data to get a true picture is difficult.”

“Review of scuba diving fatalities and decompression illness in Australia” by J. Lippmann, Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine, June 2008, pgs. 71-78

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