How Common Are Scuba Diving Accidents?
The Divers Alert Network (DAN) said that every year over 1000 scuba diving accidents are reported to them.Unfortunately, scuba diving accidents sometimes result in death…that being said, despite scuba diving being a dangerous sport, the average fatality of an individual scuba diver from an accident is 1 in 200,000.
When you go scuba diving, do you ever think of it being one of the most dangerous sports in the world?
Scuba diving is ranked on almost every “most dangerous sports” list online, and that’s because when things do go wrong, it can go very very wrong!
Scuba diving is becoming more and more popular, certifying around 1 million people every year, worldwide, and so it should be because scuba diving is an extremely exciting sport!
But before people get geared up and take the plunge into the open sea, they are required to complete some form of training.
This training is designed to keep you safe and avoid any scuba diving accidents from occurring – yes the training can be dull, but it can save yours and your dive buddies life!
In today’s article, we will cover how common scuba diving accidents are, why they happen, what are the most common scuba diving accidents, and how we can prevent them from happening.
How Common Are Diving Accidents?
The actual risk of an accident while scuba diving recreationally, scientifically, or commercially are very small, however, they do occur from time to time, and it is a serious subject.
During our scuba diving training, we go over accidents that can occur and what to do, in the unlikely event should one happen.
But the real question to hand is “how often do accidents actually occur?”
When we talk about scuba diving accidents, we are talking about what happens when on SCUBA, not the silly and clumsy accidents on land such as dropping a tank on your toe – even though that really hurts!
We are talking about more serious stuff such as getting decompression illness or an air embolism, which we will go into more detail about later in this article.
The Divers Alert Network (DAN) said that every year over 1000 scuba diving accidents are reported to them.
Not everyone reports scuba diving accidents, possibly because they are embarrassed, worried about the repercussions if they are an instructor, or they are simply too lazy to fill out the paperwork – all of these reasons are not good enough, all scuba diving accidents should be reported!
Unfortunately, scuba diving accidents sometimes result in death…that being said, despite scuba diving being a dangerous sport, the average fatality of an individual scuba diver from an accident is 1 in 200,000.
The British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) and DAN are both organisations that record scuba diving accident statistics, in the hope to prevent future incidents from happening. BSAC is a smaller network than DAN, covering only the UK waters, however, their results also include surface scuba diving accidents.
BSAC looked at why scuba diving accidents occurred and compared fatal and non-fatal accidents according to the diver’s depth.
DCI = Decompression illness
Scuba Diving Fatality Statistics.
We can also look at DAN, the worlds leading dive safety organisation, that published the following statistics on recreational scuba diving fatalities worldwide:
- 2010-13 = 561 fatalities
- 2014 = 146 fatalities
- 2015 = 127 fatalities
- 2016 = 169 fatalities
So Why Do Scuba Diving Accidents Happen?
Scuba diving accidents can occur because of numerous reasons:
- Poor air management
- Poor buoyancy control
- Entrapment (this is why a dive knife is essential)
- Misuse of diving equipment
- Rough water conditions
- Pre-existing medical conditions
- Simply not following the safety rules – human error!
The Most Common Scuba Diving Accidents.
The most common accidents are decompression illness and barotrauma:
Decompression Illness (DCI)
DCI relates to dysbaric injuries (AGE) and decompression sickness (DCS). Serious accidents, often fatal ones, can occur because of AGE and DCS.
Arterial Gas Embolism (AGE)
This occurs when gas enters your arterial blood via ruptured pulmonary vessels, spreading bubbles around your tissues. In some cases, the bubbles can travel to the brain and heart, often becoming a fatal scuba diving accident.
If a diver loses consciousness after 10 minutes or is already unconscious after surfacing, you should suspect AGE. Emergency oxygen is administered and the patient must be taken to the nearest hyperbaric oxygen treatment facility ASAP.
Decompression Sickness (DCS)
Also known as “the bends”, this is one you are probably very familiar with or have heard a lot about.
As we breathe air, nitrogen enters our bodies tissues, which is why we do a safety stop before surfacing, to release some of this nitrogen build-up. As you descend, your breathing allows excess dissolved gas to be cleared.
The rate of descending and ascending affects how supersaturated your tissues become. If your tissues become supersaturated, bubbles form, which can interfere with both blood flow and tissue oxygenation.
Barotrauma occurs in the soft tissues from pressure differences between airspaces in our bodies and the ambient pressure (surrounding pressure). The pressure expands or contracts causing an injury in the airspaces.
Ear & Sinus Barotrauma:
Ear barotrauma is very common among scuba divers. Failure to equalize properly allows the pressure to build up inside the middle ear creating pressure in the eardrum. The tissues in the middle ear swell from increased pressure and cause the middle ear to bleed, often rupturing.
Ear barotrauma can also occur from forcefully equalizing causing a round window rupture with perilymph leakage, damaging the inner ear – which is extremely painful to experience.
The main sign is bubbles being expelled from the ears.
You are more prone to an ear and sinus barotrauma if you use solid earplugs, are on prolonged decongestants, had an ear or sinus injury, have a nasal deformity or polyps, and if you have chronic nasal and sinus disease.
If you ever suffer from barotrauma, always seek medical attention.
The first rule in scuba diving is to continuously breathe.
By continuously breathing, you reduce the risk of lung overexpansion/overpressure accidents.
If you shoot up to the surface then you risk getting pulmonary barotrauma as the gas trapped in the lungs increases causing gas bubbles to escape in your pleural space (causing pneumothorax), mediastinum (causing emphysema), and pulmonary vasculature (causing AGE).
Barotrauma injuries can be anything from a mild accident to a fatal one.
Other scuba diving related injuries/accidents include:
- Nitrogen narcosis
- Oxygen toxicity
- Immersion/induced pulmonary edemea (IPE)
- Hazardous marine life
- Diving after flying
The most common scuba diving fatalities are from:
- Drowning/asphyxiation from inhaling water
- Air embolism
- Cardiac arrest events
How Can You Prevent Accidents From Happening?
Diving fatalities occur in 3 stages: a triggering event, a disabling/harmful event, and finally, a disabling event. Let’s put it into a real-life scenario to understand the steps a bit better!
- Trigger event = the scuba divers mask starts flooding
- Disabling/harmful event = the scuba diver holds their breath and tries to surface quickly
- Disabling event = their lungs rupture as a result and suffer from an arterial gas embolism (boat strikes can also occur during this event)
We can prevent a fatal scuba diving accident from occurring by controlling the first and second stages. So, what steps can we scuba divers take to avoid accidents in the first place?
9 Tips to Avoid Scuba Diving Accidents!
- Always dive within your limits.
- Be equipped with the right gear.
- If it has been a while (guilty here!), take a refresher course.
- Become a rescue diver.
- Practice safety skills before heading out.
- Keep fit!
- Learn how to deploy a DSMB/SMB.
- Keep a close eye on your SPG and your buddy.
- Finally, use your common sense.
- Always dive within your limits. I have seen so many people penetrating wrecks and caves/caverns that have not had any prior training. Most scuba diving accidents in wrecks and caves/caverns are from poor or no training at all. Always get the proper training if you wish to dive into potentially dangerous sites such as these.
If you ever feel uncomfortable with a dive you signed up for, whether it be on holiday or diving at a local site with your best bud, be truthful to them to avoid accidents, there is no shame in feeling anxious, you are actually being safe!
- Be equipped with the right gear. This can be anything from the correct fitting BCD to the best weather permitted exposure suit. For dives that involve wrecks and caves/caverns, despite diving in warm water, an exposure suit is highly recommended to avoid any injuries from sharp objects that could result in a 3-stage fatal accident.
Any equipment should be up to date with its regular service, maintained correctly, and inspected before you hit the water.
- If it has been a while (guilty here!), take a refresher course. Even if you believe you are a confident diver, jumping in the pool beforehand for a refresher course could reduce yours and other divers chances of a scuba diving accident.
Not only will you dive safer, but you will also be more confident and spend more time concentrating on what matters – the awesome marine life!
- Become a rescue diver. Getting rescue certified is not only a climb up the scuba diver ladder, it is a course that is great fun and teaches you how to respond, should a scuba diving accident ever occur.
Not only does it teach you how to be a responsible diver, but it also trains you to assist other divers in a time of need.
- Practice safety skills before heading out. Skills such as mask clearing can save one of the most common injuries from happening. Other skills such as sharing air and recovering your primary regulator should be practised frequently, especially if it has been a while since you have been diving.
- Keep fit! We all know that keeping fit keeps us healthy, but it is also vital for scuba diving, and preventing accidents underwater. If you have a medical condition or have suffered from one on the scuba diver medical form, you are best to take a trip to the doctor and check that you are fit to dive.
Your overall fitness level should be maintained so you are prepared for any unpredictable conditions – which is common, the ocean likes to throw us off guard sometimes!
- Learn how to deploy a DSMB/SMB. These “sausage-floats” are great and can save lives. They are used to signal divers below the surface, which is vital for dive sites where there is a lot of boat traffic.
The use of a DSMB/SMB can also prevent any boat strikes.
- Keep a close eye on your SPG and your buddy. Looking at your SPG (submersible pressure gauge) should become second nature underwater. Your SPG is literally your lifeline, telling you how much air you have left in your tank, and when you should start shallowing up and end the dive.
Always keep an eye on your buddy too. If they looked panicked or something goes wrong, you can quickly assist them.
- Finally, use your common sense. No matter if you are geared up or not, if the water conditions look dangerous or there is a strong current, never attempt to dive.
Choose another dive site, or schedule the trip for another time. One thing I have experienced many times is actually during the dive. Especially in places where water conditions are known to change quickly – Indonesia is a good example of this.
Never feel embarrassed to call a dive, if you think it is too dangerous, it can literally save lives.
Don’t Forget Your Dive Insurance!
Before you go out on any dive trip or holiday, it is essential to make sure you have insurance that covers you if something goes wrong. Check out our dive insurance article for more information.
Or go straight to these dive insurance company websites:
Every year over 1000 scuba diving accidents are reported, and the average fatality of an individual scuba diver from an accident is 1 in 200,000. Scuba diving accidents is a serious topic that should always be on your mind, and hopefully, you never witness or are involved in an incident.
Try not to let the numbers scare you, remember that the chances are very slim for an accident to occur. However, following the tips above can prevent an accident from occurring.
Don’t forget to take out travel and health insurance that covers scuba diving accidents, or opt for specific scuba diving insurance through companies such as Divers Alert Network (DAN) insurance, which is the leading dive safety organisation and provider of dive accident coverage.
Whether you are a beginner or professional diver, DAN has many options.
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Figure 1 & 2:
Cumming, Brian & Peddie, Clare & Watson, Jim. (2010). British Sub-Aqua Club A review of the nature of diving in the United Kingdom and of diving fatalities in the period 1 st Jan 1998 to 31 st Dec 2009.