The term “underwater construction” or “commercial diving” covers a wide array of activities. At the core, underwater construction is simply industrial construction that happens to take place under water. Activities vary greatly but include bridge inspection, building repair, repair of wastewater treatment facilities, and equipment installation.
“Basically, to me, diving’s nothing more than a means of transportation to and from a job,” says Harold Einhorn, vice president of operations at Walker Diving Underwater Construction in Hammonton, New Jersey. “After that, we’re underwater mechanics. We’re jack of all trades.” Walker Diving Underwater Construction provides everything from inspection to turnkey construction of bridges, dams, and piers and works with general contractors, DOTs, environmental firms, power companies, and dam owners, among others.
Dangers and Safety Precautions
According to Einhorn, underwater construction is just like other types of construction, with one exception. “The only difference is we do it under water,” Einhorn says. “We just face a little more hazards. You face pretty much everything that normal construction sites have. When we work on construction sites, not only do we have the topside land dangers, we’re working in an environment in and around the water. You can have drownings, swift currents, air embolisms, etc. The environment itself is a big factor in it.”
Limited visibility is also another huge risk factor for underwater construction workers. “Most of the time – especially inland – you have no visibility or minimal visibility. You may only have a foot or two … maybe three. Three feet is good,” says Einhorn, chuckling. “Guys that stay with it learn to deal with it. It’s like being a blind person. You develop a sixth sense.”
“Basically, to me, diving’s nothing more than a means of transportation to and from a job." – Harold Einhorn, Vice President of Operations, Walker Diving Underwater Construction
According to Workplace Safety and Health, other underwater dangers also include nitrogen narcosis, oxygen toxicity, and decompression sickness. Nitrogen narcosis has effects similar to alcohol intoxication and is caused by breathing in harmful gases from the air supply. The risk of nitrogen narcosis increases as the depth of the dive increases, because these gases are easily absorbed in the body as pressure levels increase. When an excess of oxygen is inhaled, oxygen toxicity can occur, which can lead to vision problems, lung damage, seizures, disorientation, and death. Decompression occurs when divers rise abruptly from the water, not allowing enough time for nitrogen to escape the body. Decompression symptoms include vision and hearing problems, skin irritation, achy joints, paralysis, and death.
Due to the extra dangers those in the underwater construction industry face, they must take special safety precautions. In addition to following naval dive tables, other common safety precautions include diving in teams, closely monitoring air supply, and being aware of how various pieces of equipment react under water. (The laws of physics are altered under water, causing equipment to react differently, because objects weigh less and move slower under water. Chemicals also react differently.)
Breaking into the Industry
Einhorn became “hooked” on the underwater construction industry after watching diver Mike Nelson (played by Lloyd Bridges) in the television show Sea Hunt. At the age of eight he became the youngest person in the state of New Jersey to be certified in scuba diving. He later earned a degree in Oceanography and Marine Biology and received his commercial diving and professional diving certificates.
“Most of the time – especially inland – you have no visibility or minimal visibility. You may only have a foot or two … maybe three. Three feet is good. Guys that stay with it learn to deal with it. It’s like being a blind person. You develop a sixth sense.” –Harold Einhorn, Vice President of Operations, Walker Diving Underwater Construction
While Einhorn was drawn to underwater adventures from an early age, not all underwater construction workers follow the same path. “[People in the industry] come from everywhere,” Einhorn says. “They range from young kids out of school to military guys to men and women who have been in other trades and businesses and hear about it and decide they want to try it. They come from all walks of life. They don’t only just work construction prior to getting into this.”
Regardless of background, once someone decides to enter the underwater construction field, certain certifications must be obtained. The Association of Diving Contractors International (ADCI) is a good resource when trying to obtain a commercial diving certification. Basic certification programs cost approximately $8,000 and take about two months to complete. However, more comprehensive programs can cost up to $20,000, and take between four months and two years to complete. Some accredited colleges also offer associate degrees in commercial diving. Four-year degree programs in Oceaneering and Marine Diving Technologies are also suitable for individuals hoping to enter the underwater construction industry. Depending on intended scope of work, some programs require trainees to obtain a transportation worker identification credential (TWIC) card through the TWIC program. TWIC was established by Congress through the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) and is administered by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Coast Guard, according to the TSA website.
“It’s a tough trade, and it’s difficult to break into it,” Einhorn warns. “You start out at the bottom of the heap, and it takes a lot of time to work your way up and improve yourself. They sell it as a glamorous thing. We’re construction workers and mechanics – that’s what we are. We do everything – concrete pumping, pumping of mud – we do it all. So don’t come in and think it’s a glamorous thing, it’s not."
Despite being a tough field to break into, the underwater construction industry can be quite rewarding for those who stick with it. “You either love this business or you hate it – and I’m still in it,” Einhorn says.
J. Mariah Brown is a technical research writer and the owner of Writings by Design, a comprehensive business writing service company that specializes in business development, promotion, and client outreach. She has worked in a variety of technical and non-technical industries including, but not limited to, Government, Non-Profit, Engineering, Translation and Interpretation, Christian and Women’s Publications, and Fashion and Beauty. She is a graduate of the prestigious E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and is currently pursuing a master's degree from Gonzaga University in Communication and Organizational Leadership.