Drowned Paspaley pearl diver had no buoyancy compensation device
The lack of a personal buoyancy compensation device was the “most significant factor” in the death of a Victorian man who died diving for wild pearl shells off WA’s north coast, an inquest has been told.
Jarrod Hampton, 22, was working as a drift diver for the Paspaley Pearling Company in April 2012 when he came into trouble off Eighty Mile Beach, about 160km south of Broome.
Mr Hampton was one of eight divers collecting pearl shells from the sea floor while they were being towed behind slow-moving vessel, the Paspaley II.
He was an experienced scuba diver but it was only his second day pearl diving, which an inquest into his death was today told was “extremely fatiguing” and involved up to nine 45 to 60 minutes dives a day.
The inquest was told that shortly before his death Mr Hampton surfaced and shouted for help before he descended back into the water.
The vessel’s crew noticed his air hose was tight so they pulled him in to find his skin was grey and there was “frothy blood” in his face mask.
There was a delay in pulling Mr Hampton from the ocean because his colleagues struggled to lift him up a ladder at the rear of the vessel.
Crew members tried to resuscitate him but he was unable to be saved. A post-mortem examination revealed he drowned.
Giving evidence, investigating officer Senior Constable Bradley Bell, an experienced police diver, said “the most significant factor” in Mr Hampton’s death was that he was not wearing a “buoyancy compensation device”.
Sen. Const. Bell said the device would have allowed him to keep his head out of the water and his airway clear.
“If Jarrod Hampton had a buoyancy compensation device and had come into difficulty … all he would have needed to have done is inflated that,” he said.
“He would have been on the surface and (they would) recognise he was in trouble.”
He added Mr Hampton would “still be alive today” if there had been a supervising diver on standby to respond to an emergency.
As part of his investigation, Sen. Const. Bell found there was pressure for divers to meet shell quotas, a culture to accept extreme fatigue, inadequate supervision of new divers, limited emergency training and no means to recover an injured diver.
Sen. Const. Bell highlighted six primary and 22 secondary recommendations to the Paspaley Pearling Company and the Pearl Producers Association.
If Jarrod Hampton had a buoyancy compensation device and had come into difficulty … all he would have needed to have done is inflated that. He would have been on the surface and (they would) recognise he was in trouble.
Those recommendations included that divers should be required to wear a personal buoyancy device, a trained driver should be on standby on the surface to respond to an emergency and the time between breaks should be increased to reduce fatigue.
Sen. Const. Bell added he believed risks for pearl divers could be reduced if they were paid a wage instead of on a per-shell basis, which he said could lead to the diver focusing on collecting as many shells as they could rather than their own safety.
Paspaley Pearl’s lawyer Gail Archer told the inquest about various changes to the company’s safety procedures, which included always having two divers on the back of the vessel’s deck, with one on constant lookout for the divers.
Ms Archer said employees now completed practice drills for recovering injured divers.
Referring to decompression-related injuries, Ms Archer told the inquest that the company had the best safety record in the world.
She said Mr Hampton’s death was the only fatality recorded by the company.
The inquest, which will aim to investigate what could have been done by Mr Hampton’s employer at the time of his death and what improvements have since been made, continues.
Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.
Sign up for our emails