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The Social Responsibility of Recreational SCUBA Diving - Part 1
by Dr Frans Cronje on January 27th, 2017

​This thread started in response to comments received on Loss of Consciousness Underwater, and concerns that divers with undeclared medical problems are jeopardizing the safety of others.

I truly appreciate these concerns. They are valid and raise a very important point: fitness to dive is not only a personal responsibility; it is also inter-personal one. In other words, in addition to any diver having a responsibility towards themselves, they also carry a certain level of assumed responsibility for others.
In some cases, this responsibility may be a professional one, such as may be the case for diving instructors, dive masters and skippers. Irrespective of whether they are formally employed, remunerated or even compensated indirectly, this represents a professional responsibility for the service they provide to the diver (we would also like to refer you to the upcoming Alert Diver in which the Consumer Protection Act is discussed in detail by Louis Engelbrecht). There are ongoing discussions in South Africa whether professional recreational dive leaders should be formally included under the Diving Regulations. As part of this, an annual commercial diving medical assessment would be required. This practice is already in place in countries like Australia.

The situation is not as simple when it comes to the participating recreational divers, however. Here the responsibility is mostly a social or civil rather than a professional one: there is a tacit understanding that one diver is willing to serve in support of the other in case of an emergency -- buddy diving. Therefore, if a diver is suffering from an undeclared or unrecognised medical condition, they are not only increasing the chances of the other diver having to come to their aid, without their knowledge, they are also withholding the fact that they may not be fully able to support them in case of an emergency. This is discourteous and selfish, at best, and dishonest and negligent at worst. 

The only real 'driver' behind diving medical assessments for recreational divers of any kind -- whether these take on the form of self-assessment questionnaires or actual physical examinations -- is the professional liability which diving instructors and operators carry when selling their services. Waivers and questionnaires are instruments designed specifically to mitigate their professional liability. However, if the participating diver is unaware of a latent and invisible diving medical problem, or chooses to be dishonest on the diving medical questionnaire, there is no objective reason or statutory device to compel the customer to undergo a diving medical examination; nor is there reason to deny them access to dive training or other professional services. It is therefore a matter of inevitability that such individuals will be accepted for training or included on dive trips occasionally. Flawed as this system may be, it was not designed primarily to protect other divers but rather to mitigate professional liability for the diving business or instructor; as long as they are able to show that they took the necessary steps to warn and inform their customers, they would not be considered negligent or professionally liable -- including situations where the customer fails to disclose a diving medical condition. 

It is highly unlikely that one would ever be able to impose 'compulsory' diving medical assessments on recreational scuba divers outside the context of commercial dive regulations; a professional service relationship, club membership, or a clearly identified diving medical risk. In truth, I would also not be in favor of this: it is more likely to impose rote or token compliance than to correct the underlying issue. Prospective divers may simply opt out and wait for a better opportunity for non-disclosure. Sadly, most diving fitness debates have focused almost exclusively on individual human rights and safety vs. professional liability -- often leaving the issue of social responsibility ignored completely. This really gets to the heart of the matter -- our attitude towards others

Certain diver training agencies, such as the Handicapped SCUBA Association, have a formal policy to ensure that there are at least two able-bodied divers paired with an individual with disabilities. This is not the case for general recreational diving.

So, perhaps it is time to introduce a formal code of conduct, memorandum of agreement, or statement which outlines this kind of understanding: a declaration of social responsibility of each diver towards their buddy. If so, it would be best to introduce this right at the beginning of entry-level dive training, and as a requirement for certification to dive. This, it seems to me, would be the most practical, reasonable and appropriate solution: For all recreational divers to assert, and formally confirm, their understanding, agreement and acceptance of a basic social responsibility towards other divers -- at the time of their original certification. In my view, there should -- at the very least -- be:
  • a commitment not to impose an undeclared- or unreasonable safety risk on other divers, and
  • an acknowledgement of their basic social responsibility towards the diver they are accompanying - their buddy.
I submit this for thoughtful discussion and would welcome further comments. I would also like to refer this matter to our to advisers on the DAN Legal Net to assist in outlining the implications of formalising an agreed code of conduct amongst recreational divers. As part of DAN's mission towards establishing a Culture of Safety, it is my belief that this represents the most fundamental first principle, on which everything else will ultimately rest. 

NOTE: ​Regarding the specific concerns raised about diabetics and diving:  DAN has gone to great lengths to develop protocols to improve the safety of divers who dive with with diabetes. However, this document fails to address the issue of social responsibility which this blog has brought to the fore. This may be a suitable platform on which to expand this discussion and establish it as a first principle.


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