Counter-errorism in Diving: Applying Human Factors Training to Recreational Diving

- english communications darryl owen decision making human factors just culture leadership non-technical skills teamwork Mar 13, 2020

This article was originally published in the Emirates Diving Association magazine on 1 Mar 2020.

There is a growing focus on Human Factors and non-technical skills in the global diving industry, much of which is being driven by Gareth Lock, the UK-based founder of the system described on www.thehumandiver. com. His book ‘Under Pressure’ has helped thousands of people worldwide to take a fresh look at the way they think about diving.

You may be wondering what human factors and non-technical skills are, as it’s not something we talk much about locally.

To demystify these terms, let’s first talk about what they are not. These are not diving qualifications – they are not going to take you deeper or teach you about new diving equipment or diving skills (hence the term ‘non- technical skills’) and they are definitely not ‘just another cert card’ to add to your collection.

Non-technical skills are all about improving decision making, through good situational awareness, communication, teamwork and leadership. In other words, all the human factors that keep us safe and well during high-risk activities. The aviation industry was instrumental in developing many of these concepts and all our diving buddies from Emirates and Etihad will be familiar with them.

In aviation, these concepts are known collectively as Crew Resource Management or CRM. It is a vital part of the airline safety system that helps to keep passengers and crew safe in a high-risk environment.

As divers, instructors or dive centre managers, not all of us work in aviation – so why should we be interested in this topic?


Probably, the most important reason is that we want to enjoy our wonderful sport to the maximum, but still have everyone get home safely to enjoy another dive. So let’s take a look at why things sometimes go wrong.

Most divers have had an uncomfortable experience underwater at some point. It might have been a leaky mask, getting lost, running out of gas, equipment failure or even being a victim or witness of a diving accident. Whatever it was, nobody woke up that morning and planned to have problems – we all look forward to a lovely day of diving and then ‘stuff happens’.

Maybe it was because we didn’t check our gear properly and just assumed everything would work (complacency). Maybe we misunderstood or didn’t listen carefully to the

briefing (communications). Maybe we didn’t realise what role we were playing in our buddy team (teamwork). Maybe we didn’t notice what was going on around us and then didn’t know what to do next (situational awareness). Maybe we just felt tired or distracted and nothing seemed to go quite right (stress and fatigue).

Perhaps it was a combination of many things that all aligned to create a bad day. We’ve all had them. But what have we done about it afterwards to make sure it doesn’t happen again? Very often, the answer to that question will depend on the outcome (located somewhere on the scale of good to bad), and whether we actually took the time to debrief the dive to learn from it. If an incident was perceived to be just an annoyance, let’s say a leaky mask, maybe we say to ourselves that it wasn’t that bad, throw the mask into our dive bag and forget about it until the next dive, perhaps hoping that it will be better next time. But what if it’s a leaking regulator or hose? If we get back from the dive safely, do we do the same and throw it in the bag until the next dive? After all, it was only small bubbles...

We know that we shouldn’t dive with faulty equipment but as humans, we often rationalise situations based on the result (outcome bias). ‘I dived with a leak in my first stage, but everything worked out fine and we had a nice dive’. In this situation, we just went past the first safety boundary, but we survived. Then we decide to dive the first stage again (why not? It worked last time) and still survive. Our brain has now moved the safety boundary from ‘never dive with faulty equipment’ to ‘it’s OK to dive with slightly faulty equipment’.This can continue until the first stage fails underwater and provokes a far more complex incident. In human factor terms, this is called normalisation of deviance and we all do it – to use another example, most drivers will have a couple of speeding fines a year from pushing over the speed limit, it’s the same concept.

Many of us will have read online accounts of diving accidents or fatalities and often the stories are missing a lot of details. That doesn’t stop people who were not present from making all sorts of assumptions to fill in the gaps, followed by an after-event review based on the information they have available or have assumed.

A typical analysis would involve comments like ‘they shouldn’t have done that! It was obvious it would go wrong!’ Except that the victim’s choices made perfect sense to them at the time, based on their view of the world at that moment – they didn’t wake up thinking,‘today

I’m going to have an accident’. People have a tendency to look at outcomes in hindsight, using words like ‘they could have...’, ‘I would have...’ and ‘they should have...’. This is a natural reaction. We are trying to bring order to disorder and it is known as counterfactual reasoning. We think that if the people had taken different actions, then the outcome would have had a happy ending. The problem is that rewriting the story doesn’t help us to establish the underlying causes (why the incident occurred), which is an essential part of avoiding similar problems in the future.

We’ve looked at several examples of how human factors affect diving which I’m sure will resonate with most divers, from beginners through to professionals. Assuming that none of us wants to have a bad day, part of the answer is to introduce a different type of training to help improve our non-technical skills. We are all human and we all make mistakes, the key to a long and happy life as a diver, is learning to fail safely.

The Human Factors in Diving course places a sharp focus on the “why?”, to complement the diving training you will have already taken (the “how”). It is designed to help you understand the techniques you can use to stay safe.

There are no drills from a conventional scuba standpoint, we don’t even get wet!

The Human Factors/Non-Technical Skills class is a way to probe around why we behave the way we do as individuals and as part of a team through discussion and computer simulation. We practice different non-technical skills to work towards reframing our understanding of ourselves, to inspire ourselves towards greater effectiveness as communicators, as team members, and as divers.