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Yacht safety protocols aim to prevent accidental diver death

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By Dorie Cox

A scuba diver was killed by a yacht propeller the morning of June 27 at Old Port Cove Marina in North Palm Beach, Florida. The diver, identified as Luis Alberto Gorgonio-Ixba, 34, of West Palm Beach, was in the water cleaning the bottom of M/Y Honey, a 164-foot Westport, when a forward bow thruster was turned on.

Witnesses said the diver was pulled in face-first when the thruster was engaged and was pronounced dead at the scene, according to local news station WPBF. It is unclear whether the diver worked for the yacht owner or was a contractor.

The incident is under investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and although it is premature to judge the circumstances surrounding the diver’s death, many yachts and divers quickly reviewed their procedures for work in the water around yachts.

Yachts typically have written procedures included in the yacht’s safety management systems for personnel working in the water around the vessel. Often called a lockout-tagout sheet, this protocol sets rules for crew and divers to be accountable for safety.

Official regulations for most countries are covered under work safety laws, like the United State’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (29 CFR 1910.147) describes the lockout/tagout standard as “the adoption and implementation of practices and procedures to shut down equipment, isolate it from its energy source(s), and prevent the release of potentially hazardous energy while maintenance and servicing activities are being performed.”

Commercial diver insurance companies require use of the form, said Geno Gargiulo, president of Commercial Diver Services of Florida, based in Fort Lauderdale. An important part of the lockout-tagout sheet is the mandate for communication between on board and in-the-water personnel.

“Communication is key,” Gargiulo said. “We talk to the officer in charge, whoever is the highest on board. We use a tender in the water and have underwater communications to the surface, the tender, and that’s relayed to crew on the boat.”

Captain, deck officer and engineer initially work with divers to agree on the sequence of events for the in-water work and they all check off standard requirements and sign the lockout-tagout document, Gargiulo said. The person in charge on board confirms communication with the diver by radio and establishes a working channel. The onboard personnel hoists a blue-and-white diver down or alpha flag and alerts any vessels that may come alongside, such as a fuel barge or tender, that divers are present.

The engineer immobilizes and isolates all running and steering gear with “do not touch” or “do not engage” signs or tags on all controls and breakers. He informs the diver of underwater machinery, as well as intake and discharge areas. The engineer disengages breakers to engines, thrusters, stabilizers, transponders, air valves and cathodic protection system. He secures propellers and shafts.

All crew should be alerted to the presence of divers around the yacht and they should have an understanding of the lockout-tagout protocols. Any change to the planned procedure is cause for immediate work stoppage, Gargiulo said.

“We don’t take anything for granted,” said Rolando Salerno, owner and lead diver of The Diver Underwater Maintenance, based in Fort Lauderdale. “We even have the captain take off the keys to the vessel engines. For us, safety is second nature.”

Salerno said that a generator on a large yacht can cause suction that can pull off a diver’s mask and regulator.

“The suction is beyond belief and there is nothing you can do to protect yourself,” he said.

Some yachts have grates over thrusters to prevent accidents with divers. Photo provided

These types of procedures are important because most yacht thrusters and propellers do not have grates or screen covers over them, said Brandon Cooney of Lauderdale Propeller Service.

“The problem is people don’t know about the lockout-tagout, especially when the boat is on a budget,” Gargiulo said. “Without insurance, work is cheaper, but when a job costs more, that extra money goes for insurance, safety and equipment.”

A part of the safety equation is the diver’s responsibility, and yachts typically use divers who follow safety protocols. An accident like this could have been prevented if they had followed a safety protocol, Gargiulo said.

“If this yacht had a lock out, there is no way anyone could have engaged the thruster,” Gargiulo said. “It only takes five minutes.”

To read the original story about the diver’s accident and readers comments about it, click here. Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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