Ship repair firm fined $300,000, assistant supervisor jailed 12 weeks over diver's death

Amir Hussain
·Senior Reporter
·4-min read
Judge's gavel. (Photo: Getty Images)
Judge's gavel. (Photo: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — An underwater ship maintenance services firm and its employee were on Tuesday (11 August) fined and jailed respectively over the death of a commercial diver in 2014.

Underwater Contractors was fined $300,000 for failing to ensure the safety of diver Kwok Khee Khoon who died on 4 June 2014 from traumatic asphyxia after he was sucked into an underwater pipe which hadn’t been shut down.

Meanwhile, assistant diving supervisor David Ng Wei Li, 37, was jailed for 12 weeks for committing a negligent act by instructing the divers under his charge to do underwater survey works despite knowing that the MV Frisia Kiel’s starboard sea chest pumps were in a state of reduced flow and could possibly suck divers into a pipe orifice.

A sea chest sucks in seawater to cool engines and generators on board a ship. If it is switched off, the ship will not have electricity.

Underwater Contractors 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.

Both the company and Ng had claimed trial to their respective charges under the Workplace Safety and Health Act but were found guilty in February.

Diver sucked into pipe orifice

Ng, along with Kwok and four other divers, had carried out the underwater survey works after Ng briefed them on their job scopes and told them to approach the sea chest with caution.

Ng and Kwok worked on 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 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, which was not more than an arm’s length away from the pipe orifice.

Ng then felt a fin slap his head and saw Kwok being sucked into the pipe orifice. He pulled Kwok’s hand but could not overcome the force of the suction. Ng then left the sea chest box to get help and to 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.

Supervisor was aware of risk

According to prosecutors from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), 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. The supervisor was aware of the risk and told the divers to proceed with care and to test for suction before proceeding with their work.

“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, said MOM prosecutors Delvinder Singh and Shanty Priya.

“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,” they added.

The prosecution pointed out that that safest manner of performing the diving works was to completely shut down the pumps in the sea chest. Underwater Contractors’ own risk assessment for work activities on 4 June 2014 stated that the existing risk control was for the pumps at the sea chest to be shut down during inspection.

For their offences, Underwater Contractors could have been fined up to $500,000 while Ng could have been jailed for up to two years with a fine of up to $30,000.

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