Navigating the Depths Safely: Risk Management & Incident Reporting with a panel of experts

- english gareth lock just culture psychological safety risk management Jan 10, 2024

SCUBA diving provides numerous opportunities for adventure and exploration beneath the waves. Be that within a flooded cave system, under the ice, or within an inland dive site like a river or quarry. However, this adventure comes with inherent (and irreducible) risks that demand respect and understanding. This blog summarises the conversation that I was involved in between Nick Hogle, Richard Harris, Grant Tobin, Neal Pollock and Charlie Roberson on the Offgassing Podcast, where we looked at the critical aspects of risk management and incident reporting in SCUBA diving. As with many valuable endeavours, the podcast took some planning, starting at the end of November and finally being recorded at the end of December. We had our fair share of performance shaping factors as the podcast was recorded too. You can hear more about this in the podcast I recorded with Nick last night (9 Jan) when it is released in due course! If this was a dive, I would have thumbed it, but it isn't that easy.

The draw of exploring the underwater world is undeniable, but it is imperative to approach each dive with safety as a core value – we’d like to think that safety is the highest priority, but there is always a trade between risk/reward, resources (money and equipment) and time. This blog will work through the conversations we had, exploring and discovering the various facets of diving safety and offering you insights and lessons. Our experiences provide signposts for you to help manage the risks in the uncertain world of SCUBA diving.

Understanding the Risks

SCUBA diving exposes divers to unique challenges and potential dangers. Recognising and managing these risks begins with an appreciation of the uncertainty and unpredictability that are present in diving. Diving is not safe (as being free from harm) as it takes place in an inherently hazardous environment. As such, the critical nature of thorough planning and preparation cannot be underestimated; it won’t reduce the risk to zero, but it will help reduce the amount of uncertainty being managed, especially when things go wrong. While each dive is a discrete activity, your performance evolves over time, and so even familiar environments can present unforeseen challenges.

One of the keys to risk management in diving is a diver's ability to understand and adapt to the underwater environment. Factors such as currents, visibility, depth, and team and individual competencies can significantly impact the safety of a dive. The podcast covered a number of different examples where unexpected environmental changes occurred and transformed ‘routine dives’ into challenging situations. These stories underscore the necessity for divers to be flexible and responsive to their surroundings. It also underscores the need to share these stories so others can learn.

Equipment's Role in Safety

Diving equipment is more than just gear; it is life support equipment and can provide a metaphorical invisible lifeline that connects the diver to the surface or provides the opportunity to return there. The panellists highlighted the importance of not only using but understanding one's equipment. Regular maintenance, knowledge of each component's functionality, and pre-dive checks are fundamental for safe diving. Stories shared by the panel members revealed occasions where equipment failures led to dangerous situations, highlighting the consequences of neglecting gear maintenance.

The problem is that we are hard-wired for the status quo bias – it worked the last time, therefore why do I need to service it now? The problem is failures can develop gradually over time. Dekker calls this ‘The Drift into Failure’. Therefore, the habit of checking equipment before every dive cannot be overstressed. We shared experiences where overlooked minor issues, such as a slowly leaking tank or a malfunctioning regulator, led to significant problems underwater. Another example of helping divers understand the likelihood of adverse events occurring – share the story, even if it was due to you ‘not following the rules’ and the community needing to step back and not judge others.


Learning from Experience 

Near-misses and accidents, while unfortunate, are powerful learning tools in SCUBA diving. The panel candidly shared their experiences, ranging from navigating challenging wrecks to unexpected wildlife encounters. These stories are not just tales of survival but lessons on the importance of vigilance and preparedness. They demonstrate how divers can turn challenging situations into learning opportunities for safer future dives, as long as they reflect on the activity, picking up details surrounding conditions and not just say “I won’t do THAT again” where THAT might be entanglement, low/out of gas, rapid ascent etc. We have to understand the context.

Debriefing after dives is an invaluable practice. This process, where divers discuss what went right and why, and what could have been better and how to do that, fosters a culture of continuous improvement. The panellists stressed the importance of these discussions, highlighting how sharing experiences, especially those involving mishaps, benefits the entire diving community. It's through these shared experiences that divers can collectively enhance their safety awareness and practices.


Psychological Preparedness

Diving is as much a psychological endeavour as it is a physical one. The discussion went into the mental aspects of diving, discussing the importance of mental preparedness in managing underwater risks. Key to this is understanding and managing one's emotions, such as fear and anxiety, which can play a significant role in diving safety. Visualisation and playing ‘what if’ games allows divers to have a better idea about how to spot something developing and then resolve it when it does happen because part of the mental model has already been developed between the dive team members.

Overconfidence in diving can lead to dangerous complacency (which is often identified because of negative outcomes). The panel discussed the importance of balancing confidence with humility. Recognising and acknowledging one's limitations is crucial for safe diving. Similarly, managing fear and anxiety is critical to stopping a situation escalating. Divers shared strategies like focused breathing and mental rehearsal, which help maintain composure under pressure. Understanding and managing these emotional states are essential skills for every diver.


The Community as a Safety Net (and a Guide)

The role of the SCUBA diving community, and its associated culture, in promoting safety cannot be underestimated. The members of the podcast highlighted how sharing experiences and knowledge within the community can foster a culture of safety and continuous learning. An advantage of being part of a diving community is that it means you have access to a wealth of collective knowledge and experiences, which can be instrumental in enhancing individual and collective safety. This means you don’t have to learn the hard lessons yourself; you can learn from someone else’s.

Mentorship and learning from more experienced divers are important aspects of being part of the diving community. Examples were given where lessons passed down from seasoned divers played a crucial role in navigating tricky situations. These interactions underpin the importance of community in the diving world. A strong community provides a network of support and learning so that we can all experience the underwater world in a safe manner.


SCUBA diving is an activity that provides amazing rewards, from wreck and reef exploration, to seeing flooded caves and their geological beauty, and the wildlife that exists beneath the waves. At the same time, there are inherent and irreducible risks and uncertainties that need to be considered and addressed during the planning, briefing, execution, and debriefing of dives.

This blog, informed by the linked podcast, aims to highlight the multifaceted nature of risk management in diving. From understanding the risks, ensuring equipment is configured and operated safely, to learning from experiences, to the psychological and cultural aspects of learning, each element contributes to a safer and more enjoyable diving experience.

Diving safety is not about a single element within the system, and safety does not reside in a person or piece of equipment. Safety is an emergent property of a system that is developed by taking a holistic approach that considers people, equipment, processes, culture, and the environment and provides feedback so the system can be improved i.e., a human factors approach

Every dive is an opportunity to learn and grow. Safety should be embraced as a continuous journey and not just a destination. The last ‘safe’ dive is no guarantee that the next dive will end up with a positive outcome. We have to work hard to create safety, it doesn’t just ‘happen’.

Gareth Lock is the owner of The Human Diver, a niche company focused on educating and developing divers, instructors and related teams to be high-performing. If you'd like to deepen your diving experience, consider taking the online introduction course which will change your attitude towards diving because safety is your perception, visit the website.