In at the deep end - training commercial inspection divers

8 May 2009

Commercial inspection divers are required to undertake a number of physical tasks. These include manhandling debris from sluices and fish ladders to welding, burning or concreting. Once you add low visibility, low temperatures and the possibility of working in confined spaces, it is easy to understand why such a specialist job requires thorough training. Dougie Ormiston from The Underwater Centre in Scotland gives more details

The Underwater Centre in Scotland was set up in the early 1970s by the UK government to enable divers to be trained in the skills required to service the booming North Sea oil and civil engineering diving industries safely. They chose Fort William, a small Scottish town at the head of Loch Linnhe, as the location for their school. With a sheltered inland location, coupled with water depths of 50m within a stone’s throw and 150m within a mile or so, The Underwater Centre is blessed with an impressive subsea geography. The combination of a sheltered, seawater site which provides direct access to a wide range of water depths makes it an ideal location, not just for learning to dive, but for ROV training and, increasingly, technology trialling. An extraordinary array of wrecks, vehicles, equipment and structures means that there are numerous and varied training and equipment trialling opportunities all year round.

The Underwater Centre has a sister school of the same name at Beauty Point in Tasmania, Australia. Both schools’ courses are designed to provide suitable training so that students meet the internationally recognised standards for scuba, surface supplied, wet bell and closed bell diving. Vocational skills such as non destructive testing, subsea welding and tools usage are provided by both schools as part of their training packages. As well as the varied diving courses, The Underwater Centre also offers courses for prospective dive supervisors and assistant life support technicians.

Diving at The Underwater Centre

The Underwater Centre’s diving school has over 30 years experience in providing divers with the legislational and vocational qualifications required by the diving industry. As far as legislation is concerned, The Underwater Centre trains divers who, once they have successfully completed a course, are qualified under UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) certification. The HSE diving ‘ticket’ is internationally recognised and is generally viewed as the benchmark, allowing a diver to work almost anywhere in the world.

There are four component parts of the HSE’s diver legislation. Numbered parts I-IV cover the key skills of scuba diving, surface supplied diving, surface supplied top up diving (known colloquially as wet bell) and closed bell diving (also known as saturation and mixed gas). Possession of these certificates allows you to work legally as a diver. However, like most jobs, you don’t get paid for travelling to work, which, when you get to the nub of it, is all the diving qualifications are. Instead, you get paid for working.

This is where the additional training in the various vocational skills comes in. Students on The Underwater Centre’s 13-week course will learn how to weld and burn underwater, use power tools and pneumatic equipment safely and generally learn most skills required for carrying out underwater inspections. The school trains around 150 new commercial divers each year as well as training approximately the same number of experienced commercial divers in closed bell diving and underwater inspection.


The development of ROV systems to support oil and gas exploration of ever-deeper regions of the ocean floor has resulted in an unprecedented rise in demand for ROV pilot technicians. The Underwater Centre’s team of experienced ROV instructors train students from all over the world in every aspect of not only how to fly an ROV, but to also ensure that it is in a suitable condition to fly. All of the hydraulics and electronics elements required to keep an ROV in the water are included in the course material.

The International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) has approved guidelines for ROV courses, and all of The Underwater Centre’s ROV courses meet the IMCA guidelines. The industry standing of The Underwater Centre as a benchmark for ROV training can be measured in the number of top level ROV operators who are seeking to use Fort William’s exceptional dive site, pier complex, purpose built training rooms, ROV work shops and team of specialist tutors to deliver training to their new recruits. A purpose built simulation, along with a variety of subsea structures, submerged vehicles and wrecks means that even the most capable of pilots will be challenged when flying one of The Underwater Centre’s ROVs.

Over 700 students have trained here over the past 11 years, including teams from the National Oceanography Centre, the Portuguese Maritime Inspectorate and pilots from Russia’s Pod Vod Services.

Underwater inspection

As the subsea and civils diving industry has evolved, so have the requirements upon divers and ROV pilots. What used to be a predominantly construction based job is becoming ever more focussed on inspection as part of planned maintenance regimes. CSWIP, the certification body for underwater inspection, oversees a series of qualifications for non destructive testing underwater.

Inspection falls into two broad categories; routine inspection as part of a planned maintenance programme and surveying to assess a site prior to undertaking construction or remedial work. The diving qualifications, 3.1U and 3.2U, teach divers how to accurately inspect and record their findings. The 3.3U certificate is the ROV pilot equivalent.

There is, in addition to the ‘wet’ qualifications, a course within the CSWIP curriculum relating to topside supervision of underwater inspection divers. Qualification under the CSWIP umbrella requires students to complete a preparatory course which includes classroom work as well as practical, underwater inspections. Once they are assessed as being of sufficient proficiency, they will be allowed to take the formal examination. The Underwater Centre runs preparatory courses for the CSWIP qualifications which, once successfully completed, prepare students for the formal exam.

The growing demand for qualified inspection personnel, and the increased employment and earning potential this offers divers and ROV pilots, has meant that the waiting list for exams has increased dramatically in recent years. This shortfall in manpower has raised the question of whether it is better, and easier, to take skilled inspectors and teach them to dive as an alternative to training divers to be inspectors.

Whilst there may be some credence to the idea that training someone to dive is, theoretically, easier than training someone to inspect, there are far more divers capable of training successfully as inspectors than there are inspectors who will be able to train as divers. Even then, once an inspector has got their diving certification, they’ll still have to complete a 3.1U preparatory course and pass the exam.

As well as underwater inspection, commercial divers are required to undertake a number of much more physical tasks as a result of their efforts. These tasks can include manhandling debris from sluices and fish ladders to welding, burning or concreting. Once you add low visibility, cold and the possibility of working in very enclosed spaces, quite why commercial diving is such a specialist job is easy to understand. This makes the idea of training specialist inspection divers less tenable.

As the requirement for skilled subsea inspection personnel grows, partly due to the inspection requirement of aging oil and gas facilities and partly due to the increasing numbers of maritime energy generation projects such as wind farms and wave and tidal systems, the likelihood is that more and more divers and ROV pilots who are qualified as inspectors will move to these more lucrative sectors of the industry. In the long term, it is unclear where this is likely to leave traditional civils works, like dam and harbour inspections.

Dougie M Ormiston, The Underwater Centre, Scotland. Email: [email protected]
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