By Gareth Lock. Header image by Julian Mühlenhaus. Photos courtesy of Gareth Lock unless noted.
A diving instructor delivered a class in which one of the students misconfigured their equipment before entering the water. This misconfiguration led to hypoxia and the student’s subsequent drowning.
A boat caught fire during the night because of allegedly overloaded electrical circuits, and then 34 people died when they couldn’t escape the boat, despite the boat being accepted as seaworthy and general specifications being adhered to.
A diving instructor and two students died while undertaking a dive in a submerged mine system when visibility was reduced and they couldn’t follow the guideline back to the surface.
Each one of these cases is real, and each one will trigger a strong emotional response because we see, after the fact, it was likely that this event was going to happen given the conditions, actions, and decisions at the time. As a rule, we have a need to assign blame for tragedies, especially when there is loss of life, and even more especially when that loss strikes home. There is an impulse in us to hold someone accountable in light of a recognised standard of best practices, or good behaviour. And yet, at the same time, we know that those involved did not suspect they were going to die at the time; otherwise, they would have done something to prevent it.
We have some degree of confidence that the participants in these scenarios were balancing acceptable performance (safety), financial viability (affordability), and workload (physical ability), which refers to resource and people rather than physical ability, and that they were managing risk and uncertainty and balancing those risks and uncertainties with the associated rewards. This tension exists in pretty much everything we do and, in the main, we are pretty good at it.
Within a system that goes right more often than wrong, bad events stick out like a sore thumb. Furthermore, when the adverse event is serious and ‘obvious’ we judge more harshly. We often believe that by getting rid of these ‘bad apples’ we can make the system safer. But as Sidney Dekker says “Reprimanding bad apples may seem like a quick and rewarding fix, but it’s like peeing in your pants. You feel relieved and perhaps even nice and warm for a little while, but then it gets cold and uncomfortable. And you look like a fool.”
These negative or critical responses are due to well-known cognitive biases, severity bias, outcome bias, and the fundamental attribution bias or error. What we often forget though is that our behaviour is a product of the system we operate in, and the choices we make in the here and now are influenced by experiences (good and bad) and the rewards (kudos, money and social media recognition) or punishments (disciplinary action, financial hardship, social media retribution) we currently face or perceive we face. The more we look into an event, the more we realize that context is so important in understanding how it made sense for someone to do what they did, or what conditions were present that increased the likelihood of the adverse event occurring.
So, where do ‘bad apples’ come from?
The term ‘bad apples’ comes from the concept that a bad apple will spoil the barrel, as such we should get rid of it before we lose the harvest. Technically, all apples will spoil eventually because of the natural decay process, even when isolated from other apples. The term bad apples has then been applied to humans in social and organisational contexts where the worry is that a single individual will corrupt others around them (from a given standard) and performance will deteriorate, or the company will go bust because of a lack of financial viability. In the safety world, ‘bad apple theory’ states that your inherently safe system remains safe as long as you get rid of the bad apples. There is a certain irony to these ideas.
There have been numerous papers looking at bad apples across multiple domains, police corruption, financial corruption, and healthcare organisations and their impact on safety and performance. In each case, the research has recognised that those individuals did not start off as ‘bad apples’, they started as well-intentioned, sufficiently-trained individuals that gradually got absorbed into the culture of the system in which they were immersed.
Many believe that individuals still need to be held accountable for their actions, and the individual bad apples haven’t been ignored in the research, e.g., Shojania and Dixon-Woods showed that 3% of doctors lead to 49% of complaints and 1% of doctors covered all complaints in a hospital. However, that paper also recognised that those individuals were a product of a failed system. At some point, disciplinary action is needed, but it should only follow a learning-based investigation and not be the first tool that comes out of the box.
The research recognizes that it wasn’t so much that the apples were bad, but rather the barrel in which they were being stored did not have the systems in place to stop the decay from developing. As such, we need to be looking more at the barrel rather than the apples if we want to make improvements to safety and performance in diving. As Professor James Reason said, “We cannot change the human condition, but we can change the conditions under which humans work.” Fundamentally, if the same ‘errors’ or ‘deviations’ keep happening at an individual level, it is likely to be a system problem, not an individual one.
Decay (drift) is normal
As divers, and being human, we all have a tendency to drift. We want to find more efficient or effective ways of getting the dive done or completing the class given the local pressures we are facing to achieve the goals we’ve set, based on previous outcomes (right or wrong). Our adherence to the rules is based on multiple factors: ease of rule compliance, fear of non-social compliance, fear of litigation, financial constraints, who wrote the rules, how much value the rules have, whether we will get caught, and what is the worst thing is that can happen.
The context is driving the behaviour. However, we should be creating an environment where adherence happens for two reasons – the rules match the environment, and those involved want to comply because they understand the value, risks, and bigger picture. Adherence should not be because those involved have to comply and are fearful of the consequences. This can lead to gaming of the system and misplaced motivation.
The normalisation of deviance, normalisation of risk, and practical drift’ (See Normalisation side box below) are all terms used to describe the slow movement away from the standards which have been decided upon, written down and published, potentially without recognition of a developing gap. Consequently, feedback is required to identify the deviations and provide corrections back to the standard, or maybe even change the standard. At the training agency level, this should be happening via the QC/QA processes, where the student provides some form of feedback to the agency about the standard of teaching and whether skills were taught or not. The problem with this is that unless the performance standards are available and briefed prior to the class, the student doesn’t know what they don’t know and won’t be able to spot drift. Therefore, unless there is a major deviation, which means that significant drift will have already occurred, drift is hard to spot.
Normalisation of Deviance is “when people within an organization become so insensitive to deviant practice that it no longer feels wrong.” Vaughan “…had found no evidence of rule violation and misconduct by individuals.” Instead, the key to accepting risk in the past was what I called “the normalisation of deviance”: Normalisation of Deviance is not about breaking rules, it is a social construct based on having standards that are gradually being eroded. This is happening because the output takes priority, and the secrecy associated with discrete or siloed operations means that other stakeholders don’t know or can’t know what else is going on. In diving, this could be the gradual reduction in hours needed to undertake training to meet a competitive advantage or the acceptance that deviations are happening and, as long as it doesn’t end up with a serious injury or fatality, it is okay. Vaughan, Diane. The Challenger Launch Decision. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition. Location 86.
Normalisation of Risk is the gradual process through which risky/dangerous practices or conditions become acceptable over time. In diving, these can be: reducing the amount of gas remaining at the end of a dive because nothing has gone wrong, using CCR cells beyond 12 months of manufacture because they still work, or not having a continuous line to the surface while cave diving. See: ‘Shit Happens’: The Selling of Risk in Extreme Sport
Practical Drift comes from the work of Scott Snook examining the Blackhawk shootdown in April 1994. “Practical drift is the slow steady uncoupling of local practice from written procedure. It is this structural tendency for subunits to drift away from globally synchronized rule-based logics of action toward locally determined task-based procedures that places complex organizations at risk.” See: Snook, Scott A.. Friendly Fire (p. 24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Instructors, are you a “Bad Apple”? Check the results of our survey that we conducted with the Business of Diving Institute: Bad Apple Survey
Another dimension is the constant fear that if the student provides critical feedback to the agency about the instructor, the instructor will behave badly toward them in the future. As such, the student provides platitudes that add no value to learning. This problem is replicated at the Instructor Trainer and Course Director level. ITs and CDs drift as they are human too, but the consequences are more serious as their deviations become more widespread.
Some agencies deal with individual instructor drift by undertaking a regular check of the instructor’s performance in a live class, or by recommending co-teaching sessions where drift or variability in performance can be identified and corrected. However, we have to be careful of the ‘observer effect’ or ‘Hawthorne effect’ as well as the possibility of individuals ‘playing the game’ to pass, meaning they know how to adhere to standards but choose to cut corners when not being observed.
At GUE, [Ed. note: G.Lock is on GUE’s Quality Control board] we have worked hard over the last four to five years to change the perception of feedback within the QC forms from being something to be feared to be something that is rewarding, especially when low scores or critical comments come in. I remember when an instructor from another agency had completed their internship and taught one of their early classes, I contacted them because of a comment in the form. I wanted to understand the background behind this comment with a view to them self-improving or getting them support.
The instructor’s initial response to me was very defensive, which confused me. Afterwards, they explained the reason for their reaction was that in the past the only reason QC contacted an instructor was because there was likely to be a lawsuit inbound, and so everything had to be documented as per the standards!
If the diving industry and training agencies (barrels) want divers and diving instructors (apples) to improve, they need to provide an environment where variability in performance is visible, recognised, and not hidden. This means that there is a need for psychological safety to speak up before something happens, and a Just Culture so learning from adverse events can happen.
Unfortunately, this need is not helped by litigation and the discovery process, where anything written down can be demanded in the case of a lawsuit. For example, at the top of one of the major training agency’s incident report forms, it says, “This form is being prepared in the event of litigation.” This guidance is not likely to help anyone understand how it made sense for people to do what they did, especially if they were deviating from standards to achieve certain goals. If it isn’t written down, then it didn’t ‘exist’ and therefore can’t be produced! However, the lack of documentation makes it difficult or even impossible to detect drift. Furthermore, the lack of clear and coherent standards across the industry—and the limited visibility of these—means that it is harder to spot drift developing. Fundamentally, what acceptable standards are you drifting from?
Understanding one of the ‘bad apples’ above
The following list looks at the conditions surrounding the first event and shows how variability at multiple levels caused this tragic event.
- A number of instructors had filed complaints to their agency about the instructor involved. It is not clear what the agency did about these complaints, as nothing appeared to change in terms of the instructor’s behaviour.
- Students did not have easy access to the agency’s standards and, when located, said standards were difficult to understand and contained contradictions.
- The agency HQ staff (as with most agencies) was very small and so had limited opportunities to undertake QC checks.
- The financial margins for dive training are small, so efficiencies are found. Instructors holding multiple unit training certifications means proficiency cannot be as high when compared to specialisation. Multiple unit certification increases instructor teaching opportunities for a limited market.
- The bespoke class was based on combining multiple classes and didn’t formally exist in the manner it was being taught.
- The class schedule was constantly changing due to the availability of staff and students.
- The urgency to complete the task was driven by financial pressures for fear of handing grants back.
- There appeared to be a perception that photographic media was needed for the shop that the deceased student worked at, and the instructor was the manager/owner of that shop.
- The students in the class did not feel that they could challenge the developing situation on the boat, likely for reasons of social conformance and culture.
- There was no ‘team’ on the boat, with the perception of four students plus an instructor, rather than a learning team working together around a common purpose.
- There had been a very similar error made by the student on a previous dive two weeks prior, and this didn’t appear to have been picked up by the diver or dive team.
If we look at Snook’s definition of ‘Practical Drift’ (See Normalisation side box) we can see that over time each of the different parts of the system gradually drifted away from a standard and there was no effective check in place to bring those involved back to the expected, and possibly unclear, standards.
Opportunities for change.
The following provides some opportunities for improvement.
- If the financial viability of your dive business is struggling; you have two choices: you can cut corners and be more cost efficient, or you can fold and find another job. The problem with cutting corners is that you don’t know where the ‘accident line’ is until you step over it. Get an external view of how you teach and what margins are being eroded, and listen to that feedback. It might save you a significant amount in the future.
- If you are a lone instructor, and you do not have any form of checking performance and don’t co-teach with others, then you will very likely drift. You need to be proactive in arresting this drift by involving others and accepting feedback from them. Own the likelihood of drift.
- If you are an agency and your instructor trainers are not checked on a regular basis, do not be surprised that your instructors will not be performing at the standards they should be following. When drift or deviations occur at the top e.g., ITs and CDs, the impact at the lower levels is magnified. There is a need to create a psychologically-safe environment so that feedback is expected, can be provided, and is then shared amongst other instructors. This change starts with leaders.
There are two ways of looking at the question, “Do Bad apples exist?” in the diving industry (and life in general). One answer would be “No, they don’t exist” because everyone has the potential to be a ‘bad apple’ based on the context in which they are operating. The other way is “Yes, because at some point good apples turn bad,” but the reason they turn bad is because of the system.
Learning comes about via exploring boundaries and making ‘errors’ and reflecting on them afterwards. This ability to learn from our own and others’ mistakes is relatively immature in the diving industry—not just looking at outcomes but also at local rationality. We only have to look at social media to see the conflict and judgment that happens when an adverse event is made public. Unfortunately, we have an innate bias to look for individual fault rather than systemic weakness and often ignore the context that is driving those behaviours. This is especially true in the US with a litigious culture that looks to blame and sue, rather than learn and understand. There is a long journey ahead to improve the orchard and barrels, but we will get there more quickly if we stop focusing on the ‘bad apples’.
Instructors, are you a “Bad Apple”? Check the results of our survey that we conducted with the Business of Diving Institute: Bad Apple Survey
Gareth Lock has been involved in high-risk work since 1989. He spent 25 years in the Royal Air Force in a variety of front-line operational, research and development, and systems engineering roles which have given him a unique perspective. In 2005, he started his dive training with GUE and is now an advanced trimix diver (Tech 2) and JJ-CCR Normoxic trimix diver. In 2016, he formed The Human Diver with the goal of bringing his operational, human factors, and systems thinking to diving safety. Since then, he has trained more than 350 people face-to-face around the globe, taught nearly 2,000 people via online programmes, sold more than 4,000 copies of his book Under Pressure: Diving Deeper with Human Factors, and produced “If Only…,” a documentary about a fatal dive told through the lens of Human Factors and A Just Culture.
Who You Gonna Call (in an Emergency)?
In the immediate aftermath of a diving fatality, law enforcement needs to locate an emergency contact for the accident victim. If that person’s phone is locked, social media accounts private, and there’s no emergency contacts for friends or family, it will likely fall to you as a dive buddy, to locate the needed critical information. This can add unbearable stress to an already bad situation. The solution is to be prepared, as Buck Buchanan and Wally Endres with Christine Tamburri and Robert Zink explain.
by Buck Buchanan and Wally Endres with Christine Tamburri and Robert Zink. Images courtesy of the authors unless noted.
According to the 2020 DAN Annual Diving Report, 189 diver fatalities were reported in 2018 across all categories, including recreational, technical, breath-hold, commercial, public safety, and military diving operations. There were 228 diver fatalities reported in 2017. Despite the 17% decrease in fatalities from 2017 to 2018, divers are still dying and there is a lot to learn from these incidents.
Dive accidents happen, not only to reckless divers, but also to the most cautious, most well prepared, most highly trained divers in the world. While we may not want to think about it, the reality is that dive-related emergencies can happen at any time to any diver on any dive. Because of this possibility, all divers should be proactive in their efforts to mitigate the effects of chaos and confusion being added to those of shock and grief.
Whether a diver experiences a minor injury or is the unfortunate victim in a fatal accident, the need for easily accessible and reliable emergency contact information is crucial. This article dives into the importance of such precautions as well as provides specific tips for how to carry them out.
Why is Emergency Contact Information (ECI) important?
Imagine you and a buddy are on a weekend diving getaway. You could be in your home town or half-way around the world. Nevertheless, the sun is shining, the water is crystal clear, and all is well with the world. Soon after submerging, tragedy strikes, and your buddy—maybe even your best friend—never resurfaces. Suddenly, your perfect day has changed your life forever. What happens next can be handled either efficiently or chaotically, depending on the emergency contact information (ECI) on hand.
In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, law enforcement needs to locate an emergency contact for the accident victim. If that person’s phone is locked with no known passcode, their social media accounts are private, and nothing in their wallet or on their dive gear points to any ECI for friends or family, you as the dive buddy, will need to help locate critical information. Doing this, while dealing with your own shock, adds almost unendurable stress.
Law enforcement’s primary role in any fatality investigation is to secure evidence, to identify the victim, to determine cause of death, and to make proper notifications to next-of-kin. This standard process changes in most, if not all, diving accidents that result in a death because most law enforcement agencies are either ill-equipped, untrained, or unaccustomed to handling a diving fatality.
Consequently, the more identifying information available, the easier it is for law enforcement to be effective. It should also be noted that most law enforcement agencies are not equipped to properly secure an underwater crime scene or to recover a deceased diver at depths.
ECI is a crucial piece of documentation. When a victim is seriously injured or dies, the need to contact someone in their network is necessary to initiate the next steps in the process. These steps may include providing a medical history to help EMS respond accordingly, arranging transportation home from a remote dive site, and/or notifying loved one(s).
Without ECI, an injured diver may be left on their own for hours. In cases where they are unable to advocate for themselves, medical professionals may be forced to make uninformed decisions for care. In the unfortunate case of a fatality, the lack of accessible ECI may mean that families are unaware for hours, days, or even weeks, not knowing the fate of their loved one.
Planning ahead and ensuring that ECI is available is part of “getting our affairs in order.” Divers should make available all vital information needed to assure that their loved ones will be reached in a timely manner.
Emergency Contact (Point of Contact) vs. Next-of-Kin
An emergency contact can be a close friend, a relative, a co-worker, a neighbor, a dive buddy, a mentor, a pastor, or other trusted persons in your life. Remember, naming an emergency contact is not to be taken lightly. This is the person that will be contacted in the event of an unexpected, life-changing event, and often this individual will be the one tasked with informing other people close to the accident victim.
A next-of-kin contact is the closest living relative to the injured or deceased. In some cases, this person may have legal authority to make decisions.
It is important to understand the difference between these two terms so that a diver can choose who to list as their emergency contact. News of this nature is very traumatic for all loved ones, especially significant others. Certified divers understand the inherent risks that they are taking. Even if family members who are not divers think they understand the risks, the shock of losing a loved one is devastating. It may, however, be less traumatic if that horrible news comes from someone familiar to them. For example, the diver may choose to list their best friend as their emergency contact, knowing that a friendly face can soften the tragic news. With this information available, law enforcement would notify the listed emergency contact, and that person would notify the spouse or close loved one.
In the event that there could be estate or legal implications, the decision to use next-of-kin as the emergency contact should be considered carefully.
The More Information the More Efficient
The Emergency Contact
After deciding who is to be listed, it is critical to obtain their most up-to-date contact information. At minimum, the following information should be listed and easily accessible:
- Full Name of the Person to be Contacted
- Relationship of the Person to be Contacted
- Phone Number(s) of the Person to be Contacted
In addition, it is recommended that the following information also be included:
- Email Address of the Person to be Contacted
- Full Street Address of the Person to be Contacted
The more information available, the easier it will be for medical staff or law enforcement to understand the full scope of the relationship between the injured individual and the emergency contact.
It is important to remember that a situation does not instantly resolve when an emergency contact is reached. All divers should be proactive in their approach to ensure that medical staff and law enforcement have quick and easy access to not only ECI in the event of an incident, but to personal information as well. The next section discusses ways in which to house these details but, at minimum, the following personal data should be accessible:
- Full Name
- Date of Birth
- Phone Number
- Email Address
- Full Street Address
- Primary Care Physician Contact Information
- Pertinent Medical History (i.e., Known Allergies, Recent Surgeries, etc.)
- Blood Type
Solutions for All Divers
Gathering ECI and personal information are just two steps in the process of preparing for the event of a dive accident. To be of value, these pieces of information must be easy to obtain quickly. Divers need to be aware that, for their buddies and fellow divers, being unable to contact someone close to an injured or deceased diver is the last place they want to be in the aftermath of a traumatic experience.
These following lists are not comprehensive, but represent simple solutions that all divers can start using TODAY to ensure their ECI and personal information are able to be accessed at a moment’s notice.
Emergency Contact Options
Smartphone Emergency Contact Features (Apple/Android)
Both platforms offer many features that typically include emergency access to a medical ID in the event that the owner becomes incapacitated. Although most people are unaware that this is available, in most cases, a quick internet search will give easy setup guidance.
Visible Gear Solutions
Divers love to label their gear for a number of reasons, but very few make their ECI easily accessible by adding it to their kit.
Duct Tape/Vinyl Tape
Some divers put a piece of tape on their backplate, canister light, or even cylinders that lists emergency contact information. This solution is fast, easy, and cheap.
Dog tags can be attached to a backplate or sidemount harness, or even tucked into a set of wetnotes. These typically contain ECI, as well as one or two pieces of personal information (i.e., blood type, allergies, etc.).
Smart Emergency Stickers by Dive Signs
Technology buffs will love this commercially available option. Dive Signs has created a sticker that can be placed on any non-metal surface, such as on a dive crate, on a certification card, or maybe even on a drysuit bag, and it contains a near field communication (NFC) tag. With one tap of a smartphone, anyone can have access to pre-filled emergency contact and personal information that can be easily programmed by the diver. They can be purchased here: Smart Emergency Stickers
Divers constantly need to communicate underwater. Most use hand signals, some use slates, but a common tool is wetnotes. ECI can be written on the first page for easy access after an incident.
Save-a-Dive Kit Solutions
In similar fashion to labeling dive gear, duct tape/vinyl tape can be put on the inside lid of a save-a-dive kit to list ECI. As an alternative, a printed or hand-written list (preferably laminated) can be used. It should be noted that this method likely won’t do any good if the dive buddy doesn’t know it exists and its location.
These opt-in systems are put in place for law enforcement in the event of an emergency and they are typically linked to a driver’s license. At this time, these services are only available in a few US states, with Florida having over 19 million participants.
The following form can be filled in, then printed and placed in a known location so that it is easy to access in the event of an emergency.
The most basic form of documentation, this is easy to add to a save-a-dive kit, in the console of a car, or in another secure location. This list can also be printed and laminated so that it is durable and easy to read.
Some divers may opt for advanced directives that provide instructions for medical care and only go into effect if the injured diver cannot communicate their own wishes. An emergency binder may contain additional information, including passwords, financial and insurance information, a will, and/or government documents such as a passport and social security information. If this route is taken, it is important to understand who has access to this information and when it is invoked.
The Divers Alert Network (DAN) Medical ID Tags offer divers an easy way to display important information that may help medical personnel respond quicker and more effectively in the event of a dive emergency. An ID tag displays a diver’s name, DAN ID number, date of birth, drug allergies, and an emergency contact. This information can help public safety officials make informed decisions about their care, even if they are unable to advocate for themselves.
Each individual diver will have their own method of listing an emergency contact and ensuring their personal details are comprehensive and accessible. Some divers may use suggestions from the lists above, and some divers may design their own ways of housing this important information. Regardless of the documentation method, there are three important points to remember:
List More than One (1) Emergency Contact
Life happens, and sometimes even the most reachable individual is away from their phone, so it is important to list more than one emergency contact.
Update Information when Anything Changes and Review on an Annual Basis
Information is only useful if it is kept up-to-date. Any time information changes, it should be updated on the emergency contact sheet or a personal information list. It is also good practice to review all information on an annual basis to ensure that it is accurate. An easy way to remember to review this information is at the same time as an annual cylinder visual inspection. In addition, the diver should ask their emergency contact to update them with any changes they might have.
Never List a Dive Buddy as an Emergency Contact
This one may seem obvious, but on any given day, one dive buddy has the other listed as an emergency contact. Unsurprisingly, this becomes useless if either buddy has an incident on the dive. As such, it is best practice to list someone who is never a dive buddy as an emergency contact and, again, to verify and update both your and their details.
No one expects an accident to happen to them.The fact is that even the most cautious diver may one day find themself in the middle of an incident, needing quick access to emergency information. All divers are encouraged to be proactive and to ensure that ECI and personal information are accurate and readily accessible. Making a conscious effort during all pre-dive briefs to discuss where and how to access ECI in the event of an emergency is good practice.
This article is dedicated to Ben Strelnick (NREMT, W-EMT) who died on May 26, 2023, while cave diving at Jackson Blue Spring in Marianna, Florida. He was a medic at Divers Alert Network (DAN), and was an avid diver who always put others before himself. The inspiration for this article was drawn from the lack of ECI following Ben’s death and the hardships that followed. Ben wanted nothing more than for people to dive and to do it safely, and he would without a doubt encourage others to plan ahead so that their future dive buddies, friends, and family could get through any type of tragedy with as little pain as possible.
About The Authors
Buck Buchanan and Wally Endres (NREMT, DMT) are co-owners of Dive911, LLC, a Central Florida-based dive training facility that specializes in instructor professional development and public safety pedagogy. Buck is an SDI/ERDI Instructor Trainer Evaluator and Ambassador who has 35+ years of experience in teaching, commercial diving, and heavy salvage. Wally is a Course Director, Public Safety Instructor, and former law enforcement officer who has 25+ years of experience in risk management operations and OSHA compliance consulting. Christine Tamburri (SDI Instructor) and Robert Zink (former law enforcement officer and crash reconstructionist) were also consulted in the composition and viewpoints of this article.