Does The Sport Diving Community Learn from Accidents?
Do we learn from accidents as a diving culture and, as a result, take the actions, where needed, to improve divers’ safety? Though we might like to think that’s the case, the reality is more complicated as human factors coach Gareth Lock explains in some detail. Lock offers a broad six-point plan to help the community boost its learning chops. We gave him an A for effort. See what you think.
by Gareth Lock
Learning is the ability to observe and reflect on previous actions and behaviours, and then modify or change future behaviours or actions to either get a different result or to reinforce the current behaviours. It can be single-loop, whereby we only focus on the immediate actions and change those, e.g., provide metrics for buoyancy control during a training course, or double-loop where the underlying assumptions are questioned, e.g., are we teaching instructors how to teach buoyancy and trim correctly? The latter has a great impact but takes more time, and more importantly, requires a different perspective. Culture is the ‘way things are done around here’ and is made up of many different elements as shown in this image from Rob Long. Learning culture is a subset of a wider safety culture.
Regarding a safety culture, in 2022 I wrote a piece for InDEPTH, “Can We Create A Safety Culture In Diving? Probably Not, Here’s Why,” about whether the diving industry could have a mature safety culture and concluded that it probably couldn’t happen for several reasons:
- First, ‘safe’ means different things to different people, especially when we are operating in an inherently hazardous environment. Recreational, technical, cave, CCR and wreck diving all have different types and severities of hazards, and there are varying levels of perception and acceptance of risk. The ultimate realisation of risk, death, was only acknowledged in the last couple of years by a major training agency in their training materials. Yet it is something that can happen on ANY dive.
- Second, given the loose training standards, multiple agencies, and instructors teaching for multiple agencies, there is a diffuse organisational influence across the industry which means it is hard to change the compliance-focus that is in place. From the outside looking in, there needs to be more evidence of leadership surrounding operational safety, as opposed to compliance-based safety e.g., ensuring that the standards are adhered to, even if the standards have conflicts or are not clear. This appears to be more acute when agencies have regional licensees who may not be active diving instructors and are focused on revenue generation and not the maintenance of skilled instructors. There is very little, if any, evidence that leadership skills, traits or behaviours are taught anywhere in the diving industry as part of the formal agency staff or professional development processes. This impacts what happens in terms of safety culture development.
- Finally, the focus on standards and rules aligns with the lowest level of the recognised safety culture models – Pathological from Hudson. Rules and standards do not create safety. Rules facilitate the discussion around what is acceptably safe, but they rarely consider the context surrounding the activities at the sharp end, i.e., dive centres and diving instructors and how they manage their businesses. These are grey areas. There is a difference between ‘Work as Imagined’ and ‘Work as Done,’ and individual instructors and dive centre managers must both ‘complete the design’ because the manuals and guides are generic, and manage the tension between safety, financial pressures, and people (or other resources) to maintain a viable business. Fundamentally, people create safety not through the blind adherence to rules, but through developed knowledge and reflecting on their experiences, and then sharing that knowledge with others so that they, too, may learn and not have to make the same mistakes themselves.
The proceeding discussion brings us to the main topics of this article, does the diving industry have a learning culture, and what is needed to support that learning culture?
What is a learning culture?
In the context of ‘safe’ diving operations, a learning culture could be defined as “the willingness and the competence to draw the right conclusions from its safety information system, and the will to implement major reforms when their need is indicated.” (Reason, 1997). Here we have a problem!
The industry is based around siloed operations: equipment manufacturers, training agencies, dive centres/operations, and individual instructors. Adopting a genuine learning approach means that the barriers must be broken down and conversations happen between and within the silos. This is very difficult because of the commercial pressures present. The consumer market is small, and there are many agencies and equipment manufacturers that are competing for the same divers and instructors. Also, agencies and manufacturers have competing goals. Agencies want to maximise the number of dive centres/instructors to generate revenue, and one of the ways of doing that is to maximise the number of courses available and courses that can be taught by individual instructors e.g., different types of CCR units. Manufacturers don’t want to realise the reputational risk because their equipment/CCR is involved in a fatal diving accident, but they also want to maximise their return on investment by making it available to multiple agencies and instructors. The higher-level bodies (WRSTC, RTC, and RESA) are made up of the agencies and manufacturers that will inherit the standards set, so there is a vested interest in not making too much change. Furthermore, in some cases, there is a unanimous voting requirement which means it is easy to veto something that impacts one particular agency but benefits many others.
This will be expanded in the section below relating to information systems as they are highly interdependent.
What safety information systems do we have in the diving community?
Training agencies each have their own quality assurance/control/management systems, with varying levels of oversight. This oversight is determined by the questions they ask, the feedback they receive, and the actions they take. These are closed systems and based around compliance with the standards set by the agency – sometimes those standards are not available to be viewed by the students during or after their class! Research has been carried out on some of this quality data, but it appears to have focused on the wrong part e.g., in 2018, a paper was published by Shreeves at al, which looked at violations outside the training environment involving 122 diving fatalities. While the data would have been available, a corresponding research project involving fatalities inside the training environment was not completed (or if it was, it wasn’t published in the academic literature).
As the ex-head of Quality Control of a training agency, I would have been more interested in what happened inside my agency’s training operations than what occurred outside, not from a retributive perspective, but to understand how the systemic failures were occurring. I also understand that undertaking such research would mean it would be open for ‘legal discovery’, and likely lead to the organisation facing criticism if a punitive approach was taken rather than a restorative one.
Safety organisations like Divers Alert Network collect incident data, but their primary focus is on quantitative data (numbers and types of incidents), not narrative or qualitative data – it is the latter that helps learning because we can relate to it. The British Sub Aqua Club produce an annual report, but there is very limited analysis of the reported data, and there does not appear to be any attempt made to look at contributory or influential factors when categorising events. The report lists the events based on the most serious outcome and not on the factors which may have influenced or contributed to the event e.g., a serious DCI event could have been caused by rapid ascent, following an out-of-gas situation, preceded by a buddy separation, and inadequate planning. The learning is in the contributory factors, not in the outcome. In fairness, this is because the organizations do not have to undertake more detailed investigations, and because the information isn’t contained in the submitted reports.
Research from 2006 has shown that management in organisations often want quantitative data, whereas practitioners want narrative data about what happened, how it made sense, and what can be done to improve the situation. Statistical data in the diving domain regarding safety performance and the effectiveness of interventions e.g., changes to the number of fatalities or buoyancy issues is of poor quality and should not be relied upon to draw significant conclusions.
What is required to populate these systems?
There are several elements needed to support a safety information system.
- Learning-focused ‘investigations’.
- Competent ‘investigators’.
- Confidential and collaborative information management and dissemination systems.
- Social constructs that allow context-rich narratives to be told.
Learning-focused ‘investigations’. The diving industry does not have a structured or formal investigation or learning process, instead relying on law-enforcement and legal investigations. Consequently, investigations are not focused on learning, rather they are about attributing blame and non-compliance. As Sidney Dekker said, “you can learn or blame; you can’t do both”. The evidence that could be used to improve learning e.g., standards deviations, time pressures, adaptations, poor/inadequate rules, incompetence, and distractions… are the same elements of data that a prosecution would like to know about to hold people accountable. Rarely does the context come to the fore, and it is context that shapes the potential learning opportunities. “We cannot change the human condition, but we can change the conditions in which humans work.” (James Reason). Rather than asking ‘why did that happen’ or even ‘who was to blame’, we need to move to ‘how did it make sense to do what they did’. ‘Why’ asks for a justification of the status quo, ‘how’ looks at the behaviour and the context, not the individual.
Competent ‘investigators’. As there isn’t any training in the diving domain to undertake a learning-focused investigation, we shouldn’t be surprised that the investigations focus on the individual’s errant behaviour. Even those ‘investigations’ undertaken by bodies like DAN, the NSS-CDS Accident Committee or the BSAC do not involve individuals who have undertaken formal training in investigations processes or investigation tools. A comprehensive learning review is not quick, so who is going to pay for that? It is much easier to deflect the blame to an individual ‘at the sharp end’ than look further up the tree where systemic and cultural issues reside. The education process for learning-focused investigations starts with understanding human error and human factors. The Essentials class, 10-week programme, and face-to-face programmes provide this initial insight, but the uptake across the industry, at a leadership level, is almost non-existent. Four free workshops are planned for Rebreather Forum 4.0 to help address this.
Confidential information management system. Currently, no system allows the storage of context-rich diving incident data outside the law-enforcement or legal system in a manner that can be used for learning. After discussions with senior training agency staff, it appears that as little as possible is written down following an incident. When it is, it is shared with the attorney to enable the ‘attorney-client’ privilege to be invoked and protected from discovery. If internal communications occur via voice, then the potential learning is retained in the heads of those involved but will fade over time. Furthermore, if they leave that role or organisation, then the information is almost guaranteed to be lost.
Social Constructs: Two interdependent elements are needed to support learning: psychological safety and a “Just Culture.” With the former, the majority of modern research strongly suggests that it is the presence of psychological safety that allows organisations to develop and learn (Edmondson, 1999). Edmondson describes numerous case studies where organisational and team performance was improved because incidents, problems, and near-misses were reported. Paradoxically, the more reports of failure, the greater the learning. It was not because the teams were incompetent; they wanted to share the learning and realised that they could get better faster with rapid feedback. They also knew that they wouldn’t be punished because psychological safety is about taking an interpersonal risk without fear of retribution or reprisal – this could be speaking up, it could be challenging the status quo, it could be saying “I don’t know”, or it could be about trying something new and coming up with an unexpected outcome.
The second requirement is a Just Culture which recognises that everyone is fallible, irrespective of experience, knowledge, and skills. This fallibility includes when rules are broken too, although sabotage and gross negligence (a legal term) are exceptions. Neither a Just Culture nor psychological safety are visible in the diving industry, although some pockets are present. To support psychological safety (proactive/prospective) and a Just Culture (reactive), there is a need for strong, demonstrable leadership:
- Leaders who have integrity – they walk the talk.
- Leaders who show vulnerability – talking about their own mistakes including the context and drivers; leaders who want to look at organisational issues inside their own organisation – not just point fingers at others problems.
- Leaders who recognise that human error is only the starting point to understand something going wrong, not the end.
‘…the will to implement major reforms…’
This is probably the hardest part because learning involves change. Change is hard. It costs cognitive effort, time, and money, and this has an impact on commercial viability because of the need to generate new materials, to educate instructor trainers/instructors and divers about the change and do it in multiple languages. Unless there is a major external pressure, e.g., the insurance companies threaten to withdraw support, things are unlikely to change because there aren’t enough people dying in a single event to trigger an emotional response for change. For example, in the General Aviation sector in the US approximately 350 people die each year, but if these deaths happened in airliners, it would mean two to three crashes per year, and this would be considered unacceptable.
In 2022, more than 179 people died diving in the US. (personal communications with DAN)
The most radical changes happen when double-loop learning is applied.
NASA did not learn from the Challenger disaster because it focused on single-loop learning, and when Columbia was lost, the investigation unearthed a lack of organisational learning i.e., double-loop learning. Chapter 8 from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board provides many parallels with the diving industry. The recent changes to PADI drysuit training standards following a fatal dive on a training course provide an example of single-loop learning – fix the ‘broken instructor’ and clarify course training requirements. The double-loop learning approach would be to look at self-certification and the wider quality management across the agency/industry; however, such an approach has significant commercial disadvantages across the board.
Creating a Learning Culture
The previous paragraphs talk about many of the issues we’ve got, but how do we improve things?
- Move to using a language that is learning-based, not ‘knowing’-based. This video from Crista Vesel covers the topic relatively quickly. This includes not using counterfactuals (could have, should have, would have, failed to…) which are informed by hindsight bias. Fundamentally, counterfactuals tell a story that didn’t exist.
- Look to local rationality rather than judging others. Move from who (is to blame) and ‘why did you do that?’, to ‘how did it make sense for you to do that?’. Separate the individual from the actions/behaviours and stop applying the fundamental attribution bias where we believe the failure is due to an individual issue rather than the context.
- Look to break down the barriers between the silos and share information. Ultimately, the stakeholders within the diving community should be looking to create a safe diving environment. Throwing rocks and stones at each other for ‘incompetence’ is not going to help.
- Adopt the Five Principles of Human and Organisational Performance as outlined in this blog.
- Build ‘If Only…’ or something produced for the recreational market, into training programmes at the instructor trainer, instructor, and diver level. This way the culture can slowly change by telling context-rich stories that have ‘stickiness’. However, this requires a fundamental shift in terms of how stories are told and how risk is portrayed in the diving industry.
- Finally, recognise we are all fallible. Until we accept that all divers are fallible and are trying to do the best they can, with the knowledge they have, the money they have, the resources they have, the skills they’ve acquired, and the drivers and goals they are facing, then we are unlikely to move forward from where we are, and we’ll keep choosing the easy answer: ‘diver error’.
InDEPTH: Examining Early Technical Diving Deaths: The aquaCORPS Incident Reports (1992-1996) by Michael Menduno
InDEPTH: The Case for an Independent Investigation & Testing Laboratory by John Clarke
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 450 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.
Why It’s Okay To Make Mistakes
To err is human. To trimix is divine? Instructor evaluator Guy Shockey examines the importance of learning through one’s mistakes, and most important, being willing to admit and share them with others, especially for those in leadership positions. It’s the only way to create ‘psychological safety” within our community and improve our collective diving safety and performance. Wouldn’t that be divine?
By Guy Shockey. Images by Andrea Petersen
A few months back, I read an article about a club where members talked about failure and making mistakes. This club required that members freely discuss their mistakes and failures without fear of judgment. The goal was to destigmatize failure and recognize that we learn by making the very mistakes we are afraid to talk about! Moreover, to become truly high performing and develop unique and creative solutions to problems, the article argued that we needed to be free of the worry of failing—to understand that “to err is human.”
The article went on to mention that for high performing teams to be successful, they needed to operate in an environment of “psychological safety.” This term was originally coined by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, and Gareth Lock has written about the concept extensively. In his work with The Human Diver, Lock identifies psychological safety as a key component primarily missing in our diving culture. As a full-time diving professional and someone who delivers The Human Diver programs, I couldn’t help but reflect on the failure-destigmatizing club in the context of our diving culture in general and, more specifically, dive training.
Consider the humble Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. The Roomba learns how to clean a room by bumping into nearly everything in the room and, with some nifty software, creates a “map” of all the “vacuumable” space in the room. Then, it goes about its business efficiently and repetitively cleaning the room. The Roomba has learned by making multiple mistakes—much like humans do.
Now imagine being able to transfer that new “map” from one Roomba to another so a new Roomba doesn’t have to repeat the mistakes of the first as it sets out to vacuum the room. Finally, imagine this transfer of data to be less-than-perfect—perhaps, occasionally, the new Roomba will make some mistakes (from which it will learn). But it will make far fewer mistakes than the original Roomba had to make.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. Humans learn the same way Roomba vacuums do (hopefully without running into as many hard surfaces), and we can transfer information between each other. Because the transfer process is less than perfect, we still make some of the same old mistakes. This is particularly interesting because, despite drawing specific and repeated attention to these common errors, students often still make the same errors! One of the most important parts of instructor training is educating future instructors to recognize where these common mistakes will occur and encouraging them to ramp up to being hyper-vigilant rather than regular-vigilant.
Learning Through Mistakes
One way we learn is by making mistakes, talking about them, and sharing the experience in the hopes that future divers don’t have to make the same ones. At its core, this is the very essence of learning. Incidentally, this is also what makes experience such an important characteristic of a good teacher. The more experience the educator has, the more mistakes they’ve made and, consequently, the more information they can transfer. Fear of owning our mistakes keeps us from learning from them; perhaps more importantly, it means that others will miss out on these important lessons.
Yet, in diving culture, we (for the most part) shy away from discussing the mistakes and errors we (hopefully) learned from for fear of being considered a less than capable diver. When divers in influential or leadership roles do this, it is a tremendous loss for the diving community in general—it robs future groups of divers of the opportunity to learn. Sadly, because this commonly happens at the leadership level, it is hardly surprising that other divers further down the line copy that behavior, and we ultimately end up with a diving culture that emulates the example of the leadership.
I advocate for taking the opposite approach. In my teaching, I am very open about the mistakes or errors I have made while diving. I recognize that I am basically a smart Roomba, and I learn by making mistakes. Thus, it would be disingenuous to pretend that I don’t make mistakes—I had to learn somewhere! I believe this approach lends authenticity to my instruction and starts to create psychological safety in my classes. Ultimately, my goal is to encourage students to recognize that, “If the instructor can admit they make mistakes, then it is okay to talk about the ones our team made during the training dive.”
I have found that there is a remarkable change in the relationship between student and instructor when this happens. Learning becomes more of a collegial activity, and stress and performance anxiety significantly decrease. This leads to more successful learning outcomes and happier students. I am a firm believer that, while training can be serious, it should also be fun!
Creating Psychological Safety
Creating psychological safety in our diving culture is a daunting task, but every flood begins with a single raindrop. The first thing that needs to happen—at all levels—is an acknowledgement of failures and mistakes among those in positions of influence and leadership. Sadly, this is not as easy as it sounds, and there is frequent pushback. Ego is one of the most dangerous aspects of a personality and it frequently causes people to overreach, crippling growth and learning. The irony here is that every single one of us has made a mistake. We all understand that no one is perfect, yet many in leadership positions cling to the view that vulnerability is weakness—that demonstrating imperfection will cause others to stop trusting them (or revering them).
I propose that the opposite is true. I should also note that I believe every dive professional is acting in a leadership role. This means that, while creating psychological safety can best be started by those in senior leadership roles, it must also be encouraged at all levels of leadership, including anyone in supervisory or teaching roles. In a perfect world, every diver would embrace this approach and enable psychological safety within their team.
There are a few things you can do to help develop psychological safety. First, facilitate a debrief at the end of the dive and begin with “something that I as the leader did wrong or could have done better was…” This immediately creates fertile soil for psychological safety to flourish. When the leader is the first person to say, “I made a mistake,” it establishes that this is a safe place to discuss mistakes and errors with the intention of learning from them. This opens the door to follow-up discussions.
On the subject of transparency, in any organization it is often the voice of dissent—a contrary position—that is the most valuable. This voice causes the group to reflect on original assumptions and decisions and offer a perspective that “groupthink” does not. This means that we need to be open to different solutions to problems lest we be blinded by our own cognitive biases—ones that have been developed over thousands of years of evolution in order to make us more efficient Roombas.
We are essentially fighting against our own brains, and it takes a significant amount of effort to think outside the box. We are hard-wired to think in terms of “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary” ideas, and we need to make a conscious effort to consider the voice of dissent and understand why it is so hard to do so.
In psychologically safe environments, we experience a significant increase in “discretionary effort,” or shifts on the “need to do” and the “want to do” curves. If a team has a high degree of psychological safety, they are motivated to perform higher than the minimum standard. If you create a high degree of psychological safety, your team will perform better as a result.
This is where it all comes full circle. We want our dive teams to perform at a high level. We want them to have a high degree of discretionary effort. We want them to embrace our “commitment to excellence.” Therefore, we must be the ones to create the psychological safety necessary to facilitate this growth.
One of the most effective things you can do as a leader is to be open and willing to share that, in the end, you are human too. You make mistakes, you admit to them, you learn from them, and you share them with others so they can learn too.
One of the most effective things you can do as a leader is to be open and willing to share that, in the end, you are human too. You make mistakes, you admit to them, you learn from them, and you share them with others so they can learn too.
Other stories by Guy Shockey:
InDEPTH: Reflections on Twenty Years of Excellence: Holding The Line (2019)
InDEPTH: Situational Awareness and Decision Making in Diving (2020)
InDEPTH: The Flexibility of Standard Operating Procedures (2021)
InDEPTH: How to Become an Explorer: Passion, Partnership, and Exploration (2022)
InDEPTH: Errors In Diving Can Be Useful For Learning— ‘Human Error’ Is Not! by Gareth Lock
InDEPTH: Learning from Others’ Mistakes: The Power of Context-Rich “Second” Stories by Gareth Lock
Guy Shockey is a GUE instructor and instructor trainer who is actively involved in mentoring the next generation of GUE divers. He started diving in 1982 in a cold mountain lake in Alberta, Canada. Since then, he has logged somewhere close to 8,000 dives in most of the world’s oceans. He is a passionate technical diver with a particular interest in deeper ocean wreck diving. He is a former military officer and professional hunter with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He is also an entrepreneur with several successful startup companies to his credit.
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