Commercial diving isn’t for everybody. In fact, it’s often the thrill-seekers who make the leap into commercial diving where wet welding is just one of the skills required. Not surprisingly, military veterans are often attracted to a career as a commercial diver.
At the Divers Institute of Technology (DIT), up to 24 instructors train students on a variety of aspects that go along with commercial diving, including welding. The skills they gain at the school, located in Seattle, allow them to perform at high levels at offshore and inland jobs – everything from extensive deep-sea projects to making repairs in water towers.
Jim Bernacki, who leads the welding department at DIT, says the best candidates for the school are often those with no knowledge of diving or welding. Welding below the water compared to topside are two completely different animals.
“Typically what happens in their first couple of dives,” Bernacki says of students with prior welding knowledge, “is their welds come out looking terrible. Then it finally clicks for them and they realize that they have to be able to switch their mindset from topside to underwater.”
The type of welding that DIT teaches is called wet welding because everything is underwater. More specifically, it’s shielded metal arc welding, or stick welding to the layman. It’s the most common method of welding for commercial divers.
Another method that has gained popularity, Bernacki says, is a process where the diver establishes a dry “habitat” around the workstation where inert gas is pumped in to displace the water. It could be large enough for the diver to crawl into and use any type of welding process they prefer because the area is dry.
There is also a smaller version of the habitat, perhaps the size of a small microwave oven, that can be suctioned to the side of a work area, allowing the diver to weld through portals in the habitat.
Courses span seven months and include 900 hours of study. It should come as no surprise, however, that the first month of schooling focuses on physics and medicine. Considered the most challenging part of the program for most students, these courses are mostly taught in the classroom environment, but become an important aspect of a diver’s career once they enter the water.
Decompression is a huge part of commercial diving because workers are subjected to hours of underwater pressure that builds up gases in the body, which need to be expelled properly. Students learn about the laws of science regarding gas and how it behaves under pressure. They also learn about gases and their limits and how to identify sickness and injury related to diving and then how to treat them once they return to the surface.
The second and third months cover rigging, dive gear, recompression and life support equipment, topics regarding the offshore industry (a big industry for many commercial divers) and HAZMAT issues.
Month four is when the students dive into welding, pun intended. Students learn the tools of the underwater trade, which includes both welding and torch cutting. However, it’s not all underwater learning – while topside, they become familiar with traditional tools of the trade, such as electrode holders, chipping hammers, wire brushes, 6010 and 7018 electrodes, oxyfuel rigs, smith torches and basic hand tools. The underwater tools students learn to use include twist lock electrode holders, chipping hammers, wire brushes, 7014 electrodes and Broco exothermic torches.
Students begin the welding portion of their education learning safety, tools and skills. By the third day, they’re in a dive tank welding T joints in the water. Students switch out responsibilities from actual diving to running the rack (managing the gas mixtures) and serving as dive tender (the person who communicates with the diver while underwater and who also oversees the safety and equipment aspects of the dive). By swapping out these roles, students are trained on every facet of the operation. Eventually, students also dive at Lake Union, which is a mostly freshwater lake within the city limits of Seattle where they dive for four days and execute underwater torch cutting.
In month five, students cover salvage and hydraulic tools. Students work in teams to bring a boat up from the bottom of Lake Union. Month six is dedicated to scuba certification and inland diving skills. The final month covers deep diving where students will do three dives at 60 ft., five at 130 ft. and two at 160 ft.
Most elite divers are termed “saturation” divers. Saturation refers to the gases that saturate the body while under pressure, which increases the longer a diver is in the water. The depth they dive to also has an impact – DIT takes students no deeper than 165 ft.
However, Bernacki says a DIT graduate currently doing deep-sea work reports a 500-ft. dive is considered deep. Going 700 ft. to 750 ft. is considered “high-profile dive work.” However, 300 ft. or less is the average.
“You can do saturation dives in shallow water also,” he explains. “It’s all about the time spent at depth.”
While diving, workers are breathing compressed air. While under pressure, that air doesn’t escape the body as it would in normal circumstances. Even though the divers are exhaling while underwater, some of the gases remain in the tissues.
“You have to come up slowly to release that pressure from your body so your body can release the gases,” he explains.
When a diver fails to come up slowly, they can develop decompression sickness, or Caisson disease, which is also referred to as the bends. Basically, the deeper a worker dives in the water, the more nitrogen is dissolved into tissues. This nitrogen can form into bubbles of gas when the change in pressure occurs too rapidly. Dive tables help divers determine the speed at which they can return to the surface.
Saturation divers sometimes stay in controlled environments through the duration of the job. This means they return to pressurized living quarters after their dive and remain there until returning to the water for another day of work.
“Their body is never off gas,” Bernacki says, “so they can go down deep again the next day. When the project is completed, those fellas get decompressed at a slow rate. If you’re down at 1,200 ft. for three weeks, it might take four or five days to come up slowly enough to decompress.
“That’s a lifestyle. You have to live in tight quarters. You have to live, work, eat and breathe with the same group of men for quite a while. It’s a different lifestyle. The saturation divers are the elite of the dive industry.”
Inland jobs, prospects
By contrast, inland divers are never going to experience a job that requires saturation dives. Much of the inland work includes jobs in shipyards, marinas, piers and walkways.
Some, such as those who take jobs working on water towers, will be high above the ground yet submerged in water. Others might have a job where they’re diving in a nuclear power reactor’s water tank, wearing a dosimeter to monitor their exposure to radiation while navigating a fragile and costly environment.
The ratio of offshore to inland job opportunities is about 50/50 at the moment, Bernacki says, though it does ebb and flow. Many DIT instructors come from the inland side of the industry yet the school has a long history of connection with the offshore industry, as well. This provides excellent education opportunities for the students as well as job prospects after graduation.
“It kind of goes through cycles,” he says. “The offshore work depends on the weather and who is getting permits to drill and what’s going on out there [with the oil and gas industry].”
While some welding settings, such as construction, tend to be male-dominated, females are not strangers to the DIT campus. Five to eight women are enrolled at any given time, about half of which have prior welding experience.
“In the field,” Bernacki begins, “women, just like men, have to diversify their skills. Having topside welding as a skill will help a candidate get recognized, which, in turn, will help them get their first dive. I think the women attracted to this industry are looking for a non-traditional career. Be it the lure of travel, adventure or the thrill associated with diving, this type of work attracts many different types of people – women and men, vets and civilians, young and older.”
Unlike topside welding where certifications are valid from one job to the next, welding certifications for underwater jobs are company-specific. Bernacki says that when a diver is hired, they are presented with a test situation where they execute the weld, which is then certified by the company.
If the diver passes, they are cleared and certified for that job. Should the diver’s job end with that company and they go to another company to do the exact same type of weld, they must go through the same certification process for the new company.
“That’s different from the topside certifications,” Bernacki says, “which are recognized around the world.”
DIT strives to prepare students for these certifications, and the school has one of its own. It offers a certification test based on a variety of extensive criteria, so when the student passes the test, they get their own version of an in-house welding certification in their graduation packet.
“Welding is very tangible and it offers great satisfaction for a job well done,” Bernacki concludes. “Do it underwater and you take it to a whole new level.”