Diver sucked into pipe: Firm and assistant supervisor found guilty

Wan Ting Koh
·Reporter
·5-min read
(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — An assistant diving supervisor and his employer, which was involved in a fatal accident that saw one of the company’s divers being sucked into an underwater pipe in 2014, were found guilty of their respective charges on Monday (3 February).

Underwater Contractors was convicted of one charge of failing to ensure the safety and health of its employees. The firm’s actions resulted in the death of one of its divers, Kwok Khee Khoon, on 4 June 2014. The firm had been engaged by Sleipner Shipping to do underwater survey work on the vessel MV Frisia Kiel, which was anchored at the Eastern Working Anchorage off the coast of Marina South.

The firm’s assistant diving supervisor, David Ng Wei Li, was also convicted of committing a negligent act by instructing the divers under his charge to perform underwater survey works despite being aware that that the ship’s starboard sea chest pumps were in a state of reduced flow. The reduced flow meant that there was a risk divers could be sucked into the pipe orifice.

Both the company and Ng had claimed trial to their respective charges under the Workplace Safety and Health Act.

At the time, Ng had been working as a commercial diver for six to seven years, clocking up at least 1,500 dives as a commercial diver. He had began work with Underwater Contractors in February 2013 and was promoted to assistant diving supervisor a year later.

In finding both parties guilty, District Judge Jasvender Kaur stated that the company ought to have aborted works on the day, and that Ng had endangered the safety of the diver by failing to exercise the caution incumbent upon him.

Diver saw colleague get sucked to his death

Ng, along with Kwok and four other divers, had carried out the works after Ng had briefed the group on their job scopes and informed them to approach the sea chest with caution. A sea chest is meant to suck in seawater to cool engines and generators on board the ship. If it is switched off, the ship will not have electricity.

At 6pm, after a break, the divers resumed the operation underwater, with Ng and Kwok working in the starboard sea chest box. Kwok was tasked to open and clean the gratings of the sea chests.

Kwok remained close to Ng while he worked so as to provide light and to take a photo of the finished work. After Kwok took the photo, Ng asked Kwok to make space by rising to a higher position. He could not have been more than an arm’s length away from the pipe orifice, DJ Kaur noted.

Ng then felt a fin slap his head and saw Kwok being sucked into the pipe orifice. He pulled Kwok’s hand but the suction force was too great, according to his testimony. He then exited the sea chest box to get help and inform the vessel to shut down the pipes. Attempts by other divers to pull Kwok from the pipe orifice failed. After the pump was shut down, Kwok was brought onto a boat motionless. He was pronounced dead by paramedics at about 7.38pm.

Supervisor knew the risks

According to the prosecution, Ng did not have reasonable grounds to believe that it was safe to work along and inside the starboard sea chest when the pumps were switched on at reduced flow, as there was a risk of being trapped by suction from the sea chest.

Ng had been aware of the risk and had informed the divers to proceed with care and to test for suction before proceeding with their work, said the prosecutors from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

“Despite knowing that there was the risk of divers being trapped by suction, resulting in serious injury or death, when the pumps were switched on, the accused chose to instruct the divers to proceed with the survey works at the vessel.

“This was certainly conduct that fell below the standard of a reasonable assistant diving supervisor, and thus the accused is deemed to have failed in the discharge of his duty,” said MOM prosecutors Delvinder Singh and Shanty Priya.

The prosecution disputed the defence’s argument that it was safe for the divers to proceed with the underwater works when the sea chest pumps were in reduced flow, and that someone on the vessel had increased the suction of the sea chest pumps after diving resumed at 6pm. There was no evidence to show that the suction had been increased, stated the prosecution.

The prosecution also pointed out that that safest manner of performing the diving works was to completely shut down the pumps in the sea chest. In fact, Underwater Contractors’ risk assessment for work activities on 4 June 2014 also stated that the existing risk control was for the pumps at the sea chest to be shut down during inspection; however, this was not done.

The firm and Ng will return to court on 9 April.

For doing a negligent act endangering the safety of Kwok, Ng faces jail of up to two years and/or a maximum fine of $30,000. Underwater Contractors faces a fine of up to $500,000 for its breach.

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