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The Diving Safety Officer
Date:03/26/03  By Editorial

What does every avid diver's dream job look like? Let's start with getting paid a comfortable salary to dive. That's probably enough to satisfy most, but quality of life and goals are important too, so consider also having job security, good interpersonal relationships, great work stories, an outdoor environment, great potential to contribute to science and a chance to ensure the safety others. Could such a job exist? Is this for real? Strangely, very few people have ever heard of a diving safety officer, but they do exist...we even met one.

...the diving safety officer gives the university protection from potential liability and a great reputation for its diving scientists.

wayne pawelek
© 2002, Wayne Pawelek
Wayne Pawelek, diving safety officer for Scripps Institution of Oceanography

In January 2003, we spoke with Wayne Pawelek, diving safety officer of the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) in La Jolla California.

The goal of the diving safety officer is to help ensure the safety of divers operating under the auspices of the university. Partially as a result of Wayne doing his job, scientific divers have an impressive safety record: the AAUS Repetitive Diving Workshop reports only one in 100,000 dives will result in an accident, compared to two in every 10,000 for recreational and one in every 1,000-2,000 for commercial divers. Indirectly, the diving safety officer gives the university protection from potential liability and a great reputation for its diving scientists.

As in life, prevention is the best cure for potentially hazardous situations. Pawelek is responsible for enforcing strict guidelines on Scripps' divers; the divers must dive regularly, have regular physical exams and use well-maintained equipment. This applies not only to Scripps' divers, but also divers from other universities that dive on SIO projects under the reciprocity umbrella of the American Academy of Underwater Scientists (AAUS). The Scripps Research Diving program is the model for safe and effective conduct of international research diving programs, as recognized in the exemption for scientific diving from OSHA commercial diving standards.

As the diving safety officer for the nation's oldest and largest non-governmental research diving program, Wayne has been responsible for over 100,000 research dives since 1991. He supervises an average of 120 staff, student and faculty divers per year in addition to his other responsibilities at Scripps. Outside of his role at SIO, Wayne also serves as chairman of the La Jolla Underwater Park Committee, is a member of the San Diego County Coroner's Expert Committee on Diving Related Deaths, and is an advisor to or officer of several dive teams including California State Parks, San Diego Lifeguards Search and Rescue and the Nation Park Service.

The diving safety officer has huge responsibilities, but the benefits can't be beat. In Pawelek's own words: "I enjoy having the opportunity to not only train the staff, students and faculty here at Scripps but to participate in their research throughout the world." Wayne does about half of his diving in foreign seas including the Caribbean, Australia, the Gulf of Mexico, the Sea of Cortez, Indonesia, the Mediterranean, Antarctica and Brazil. When Scripps divers are on location, Pawelek might fly to meet them, then supervise their dives in unfamiliar locations and even work along side them as a research diver for the study at hand. Other than that, his duties are those of a high-level divemaster who will fill tanks or do whatever is necessary to ensure a smooth diving operation.

Back at home, things aren't always fun and glory. A fair amount of paperwork goes in to supporting research diving operations; twenty five percent of a diving safety officer's job is administrative. Pawelek keeps medical reports on all of his divers, he maintains records on all of the gear that is used and he has logs of every SIO dive. Wayne also explained that there is a big risk for potential stress in dealing with researchers and their projects, but he says he's been very lucky to have maintained healthy relationships with the faculty at SIO. On the rare occasion that Pawelek has a bad day, he just goes for a walk along the beach, or jumps in the water to go for a dive.

Is Scripps accepting resumes for the position? Probably not. Is the competition tough? You bet. There are approximately 50 diving safety officers in the United States, and those who are next in line for the job have usually earned their spot. It takes mastery level knowledge of diving in all kinds of environments to do Wayne's job. Even getting a foot in the door requires years of patience and lots of research diving. Getting hired requires all that plus a heaping ton of luck. Pawelek's advice for any budding DSOs is to volunteer for research projects where possible, which may lead to employment as a research diver, then maybe someday, as a diving safety officer.

Wayne is understandably content with his job. His passion for what he does is evident in his calm smile and his enthusiasm for teaching diving- a good part of our conversation was about methods and teaching philosophies. Throughout our discussion, Wayne spoke with the energy of a first-year instructor, yet he has the knowledge and wisdom of someone whose life is dedicated to safe diving.

Related Pages
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
American Academy of Underwater Sciences
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