Divers Safety Under The Spotlight

[ABC broadcast 9th July 2012]

TONY EASTLEY: The safety standards of the country's biggest pearl producer are under scrutiny after the death of one of its divers in April this year.

Twenty-two-year-old Jarrod Hampton died on only his second day of drift diving with the Paspaley Pearls company.

ABC's Four Corners program, which airs tonight, raises a number of questions about the company's safety practices and training in rescue and recovery.

Lindy Kerin reports.

LINDY KERIN: When Jarrod Hampton headed to Broome to take up a job with Paspaley Pearls he was excited about the adventure ahead.

But on his second day of work, off the remote coast of north Western Australia the 22-year-old was dead.

Tony Hampton is his father.

TONY HAMPTON: He made an emergency ascent. We don't know what happened underwater for him to make that emergency ascent, but he did. He was in trouble of some sort, and they got him back to the boat basically and couldn't revive him. 

LINDY KERIN: The Four Corners story raises serious questions about safety standards within the pearling industry.

It's a dangerous job, but it's been revealed the Paspaley ship did not have a safety boat, or a standby diver on board.

Dr Carl Edmonds has more than 40 years experience in diving safety.

CARL EDMONDS: The standby diver is the one that goes to the person quickly, very rapidly; he's already dressed raring to go the whole time, rescues the diver brings him to the surface. And then you've got to have a way of getting him onto the safety boat, and on the safety boat have some form of resuscitation.

LINDY KERIN: The Australian Standard recommends a standby diver, but it's not a legal requirement.

Brett McCallum from the Pearl Producers Association told Four Corners, standby divers aren't necessary.

BRETT MCCALLUM: In most cases the diver is retrieved by either dragging on the hose or they will go and pick him up if he's available there.

LINDY KERIN: Why not have a standby diver? 

Brett MCCALLUM: The pearling industry doesn't feel it necessary to have a standby diver. 

LINDY KERIN: Jarrod Hampton's mother, Robyn, is concerned about how long it took for her son to be pulled from the water. 

ROBYN HAMPTON: Now we are the first to say maybe they could never have revived him, we would accept that. But we cannot accept that he was in the water for up to 10 to 20 minutes with no chance of revival.

LINDY KERIN: It's also been revealed that five of the eight divers on board the boat that day had never done drift diving before and that there was a serious shortage of experienced divers within the industry.

At the start of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) Paspaley dropped its shell price from $4.50 to $3.50 a shell, which equates to a $20,000 cut for a diver for a season.

When the economy started picking up and the company didn't raise the price, a number of experienced divers left. 

Former Paspaley diver, Mick Chase, told Four Corners he was worried about the number of first time divers.

MICK CHASE: With a mass exodus like that, you can't put that many green divers into water with a few experienced guys to look after 'em. 

LINDY KERIN: So what did you think when you heard they'd all gone? 

MICK CHASE: I thought there's gonna be, there's gonna be a fatality soon 

LINDY KERIN: Paspaley Pearls declined to be interviewed by the program, saying Jarrod Hampton's death is still under investigation.

In a statement the company said safety is a high priority.

It says it's wrong to suggest that divers have left the industry because of the shell price and that that has compromised safety.

TONY EASTLEY: Lindy Kerin and the full story can be seen on Four Corners on ABC 1 tonight at 8.30pm.