Diver Mark Veal snubs $100,000 payday with DOF Subsea Australia over safety concerns

Headshot of John Flint
John FlintThe West Australian
Divers working at record depths of up to 273m, repairing an ocean floor pipeline.
Camera IconDivers working at record depths of up to 273m, repairing an ocean floor pipeline. Credit: Unknown/DOF Subsea

An experienced diver rejected a $100,000 payday for one month’s work because he “didn’t have any trust” in the company’s management ahead of Australia’s deepest commercial dive.

Mark Veal told a court Perth-based DOF Subsea Australia “liked to push the boundaries of safety”.

Mr Veal said he was doing air diving work for DOF ahead of the 2017 deep saturation dive to 270m off the north coast of WA. A position on the saturation team became available and was offered to him by Michael Paton, who was in charge.

The 50-year-old said alarm bells went off in his mind when Mr Paton sought his advice “three or four times” on compression rates for such a deep dive, which would be the company’s deepest. Mr Veal had dived to 212m with a different company.

“They didn’t, in my opinion, seem to be confident or know exactly what they were doing,” he said.

“For the boss to come to the diver and ask what blowdown procedures I’ve used in the past . . . it just raised alarm bells. One, he shouldn’t be asking me and, two, he should know the answers.”

Mr Veal said he did reach out to a former colleague who was a life support supervisor for his opinion on blowdown procedures for dives as deep as the one DOF was about to do. The ex-colleague texted him back to recommend compression rates that had been used before in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr Veal showed the test to Mr Paton.

“He had a quick glance at it and said, ‘That’s far too slow.’ It was quite an abrupt response so I ended the conversation.

“In my head it validated their gung-ho approach to such a deep dive.”

Mr Veal was asked by prosecutor Chris Shanahan to describe Mr Paton’s management style. “To be brutally honest, he’s an egocentric, narcissistic person,” he replied.

Mr Veal said he later became “very aware” that the divers were “suffering from high pressure neurological symptoms, and they were pushed to dive and were also being bullied at times on the bottom.”

Asked for his opinion on the blowdown rates used by DOF, he said they were “very fast” for the first group of nine divers and “ridiculous” for the second group of six divers.

He said on dives that deep, the men were on their own. “If something goes wrong, you may as well be at the outer reaches of the universe,” Mr Veal said.

Saturation diver Ben Miller, of Joondanna, told the court he suffered a traumatic and life-changing brain injury on the dive.

In a meeting, just before his team was blown down, Mr Paton mentioned there had been “some issues” with the first group of divers, Mr Miller said.

“He said that due to that we would be blown down slower.”

But the prosecution alleges the second group of divers was blown down much faster.

Mr Miller said he reported to one supervisor that he felt “slow and foggy” and cognitively impaired.

Another diver Ashley Gibson, 40, from Bayswater, was also in the second group. He recalled the meeting just before blowdown.

He said Mr Paton told them “there were a few HPNS issues with the first group that went in”. He recalled he was also told: “If currents come up, get back to the bell straightaway.”

He reported nausea and dizziness after being compressed.

Six months after the project he noticed a “personality change”. He was “crying a bit more” and “just didn’t feel normal”. He was also forgetful and confused, but said the symptoms passed after about six months.

He told the court he was back diving with DOF.

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