The Human Diver Project: “Counter-Errorism”

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    “To err is to be human”, as the old axiom goes. When coupled with an intense skill-based activity such as scuba diving, human error can make the difference between safety and injury; in many cases, between life and death. Recognizing human fallibility and how to meet and overcome these demands in the world of scuba is The Human Diver Project: an in-depth program developed by dive safety expert, author, and former British RAF (Royal Air Force) officer Gareth Lock.

    Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Gareth Lock

    The Human Diver Project is centered on five key pillars: decision-making, situational awareness, communications, teamwork, and leadership and followership. Its methodology was composed of Lock’s experiences working for the RAF and engaging in recreational and technical scuba diving: as of this writing, he is certified to 75 meters (246 feet) with helium mixes and has performed over 800 dives around the world. The instructor candidates he is developing to deliver his face-to-face program spend 20 weeks with 10 webinars, complete a personal project revolving around a diving-related subject, and teach and coach at least two face-to-face classes in Lock’s town, Wiltshire, UK.

    Supporting The Human Diver Project is Lock’s book, “Under Pressure”, which was released in early 2019. The companion guide catalogues challenging experiences linked to human error; stories from luminaries in the dive industry cementing that everyone, regardless of skill or experience, is prone to making mistakes.

    We spoke with Lock about his origins in scuba diving, the inspiration behind his project and its intricacies, “Under Pressure”, and where he wishes the project to go looking forward.

    John Tapley (JT): Thank you for agreeing to meet with me this morning. Take us back to the beginning. What inspired you to take up scuba diving? How did those experiences shape The Human Diver Project?

    Gareth Lock (GL) : I first learned to dive while I was on holiday in Greece in 1999. I didn’t dive for about six years and my early dives influenced my thoughts about safety and diving generally. I did my open water ticket and [at] the qualifying dive, which was 24 meters, the instructor had taken us down there. “Remember to write 18 meters in your logbook because we’re not allowed to go deeper.” Five years later we go to South Africa with work; one of the guys says, “Could we do some diving while we’re out here?”

    We went to a dive operator… no real checkout or checking cards; had a great time and thought, “You know? I really like this.” A month later I was away with work in San Diego and had a great operation: a guide; a limit of 18 meters. On a Sunday we went diving Wreck Alley and they didn’t have any dives suitable for open water, so I managed to persuade the operation to dive it – 30 meters or so – and I had to sign an additional waiver form. As we went down the anchor line, the low-pressure inflator hose disconnected from the BCD, which I hadn’t realized. I was diving in a wetsuit and had no redundant buoyancy. As I was descending, I knew the bottom was at about 30 meters and I wasn’t going to sink massively. My buddy and I resolved the issue and we came up, but had no idea of the risks behind what had just happened.

    Gareth Lock – Scapa Flow 2019

    I got back to the UK (that failed dive would’ve been dive nine, which means I’m very conscious that people make decisions, but they may not understand what they’re getting themselves into) and I started doing my diver training through Global Underwater Explorers. I went through my Fundamentals and the whole thing was, linking with my military aviation background, “train hard and fight easy”: you want to train at a level well above what you were diving. At that time, I was doing a lot of cold-water wreck photography and what I wanted was a stable platform to take photos and go a bit deeper. I didn’t want to think about the diving I was doing: it just needed to happen.

    At a similar time, I was going through a number of work-related activities within the RAF and I picked up on human factors. I thought, “Wait a minute. Why aren’t we doing more of this in diving?” In 2011 I started a part-time, self-funded PhD, looking at the role of human factors, and that’s on hold for the moment. In 2015, I left the air force and started to work in the oil and gas sector, teaching the same non-technical skills to oil and gas workers on oil rigs in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the bottom fell out of the oil market and so this sort of training was cancelled, and I wanted to do something to teach these concepts and tools in diving.

    In January 2016, I ran the first pilot class, and the guys on it said, “This is really good. We really need to have this. We’ve learned lots but have no idea how you’re going to market this.” That’s been a consistent theme over the last three and a half years since I’ve been running these programs. People get lots out of it and all believe these concepts should be in the training curriculum for agencies, especially in instructor or higher risk programs like cave, CCR (closed circuit rebreather), or tech diving. It’s about understanding their own fallibility and managing it in a pro-active way to limit those risks.

    JT: Earlier in the year you published a book, “Under Pressure”, which details these factors in human error. Could you share some details about it?

    GL: One of the bits of feedback I’d had was to put the knowledge from the classes into a book so people can use it as a reference guide such that it becomes a go-to manual for this topic. That process started in the summer of last year. I thought one of the best ways was through storytelling, and recognize that people will make mistakes no matter how experienced they are. I approached about 60 people – really experienced divers; household names in the diving community. I asked them what I’d like was a story in which mistakes happened, and I’d like the story to be context-rich. I would then take it apart using these human factors and non-technical skills to understand how the event occurred and what we could do next time to prevent it from occurring next time. The book is broken down into a number of different chapters that allow a different topic like situational awareness or decision making to be covered, and they’ve got two or three stories per chapter; or you can read start to finish, which is what I recommend people do. It’s 330 pages, so about a 10-hour read.

    “Under Pressure” – 2019

    Each chapter gives a summary at the end, and right at the end the final chapter is about bringing it together, how to make it work for you as a diver. Each chapter gives people an abstract view and some tools they can use to improve their diving.

    JT: Your course is set by five tenets: decision-making, situational awareness, communications, teamwork, and leadership and followership. How do you apply these concepts through your course?

    GL: Start with understanding how decisions are made… most of the decisions we make may not appear to be logical in hindsight, in real-time we use mental shortcuts, mental models, [and] approximations of what’s going on. We follow rules but those rules may not be how we expect them. What I do through the course is look at the different decision-making tools and topics that are there, expand on their pros and cons, and understand that in the real world there are a lot of pressures present: the best way to understand whether the decisions were good or not isn’t necessarily to look at the outcomes but the process by which you got to your decision point.

    We talk about situational awareness and that is the first part of the decision-making process: it’s about gathering information. A number of agencies talk about self, team, and the environment. The way I explain situational awareness, based on the theories that are out there, is looking at sensory information: collecting information, then processing it. What does it mean to me right now? And then we project into the future. Situational awareness is understanding what shapes: what is important to us, what is dangerous, what is interesting, and what is pleasurable. That’s where our attention is drawn; we can’t pay more attention, but we can focus it on what’s important. We really only know what’s important if we have debriefs or feedback in the situation we’re in.

    Edinburgh Teaching – 2019

    The communications piece looks at the models, the way we communicate with open questions, closed questions. Trying to get an understanding of details like how much gas you’ve got is a closed question and I can answer it with a number. If I said, “Did you understand this task?”, the social context would normally mean, “Yes. I understand that even if I don’t.” I teach people how to develop open questions, “so John, when you get to the bottom of the shot line and we’re on the wreck, which way are you going to turn and what do you expect to see?” You can’t answer that in a closed way and that really helps get a better understanding of the brief.

    [With] teamwork, we go through what makes a team: not just a group of people: a group of people that trusts each other. They are able to take risks with each other in terms of communication; that they’re happy to put their hand up and say, “I don’t agree with that.” Team is really important in diving: not just in divers who’ve graduated and are going diving as a team, but for instructors to recognize there are two teams running at exactly the same time: one of those teams is the student team while the other is the instructor plus the student team. If we teach people how to dive as a team right from the outset, then they’re more likely to dive as a team, that they will brief effectively, and they will debrief effectively. If we don’t teach team or leadership and followership in a similar situation, if we don’t teach those skills through diver courses or instructor-development courses, then don’t be surprised that teamwork, leadership, and followership aren’t effective out in the real world.

    JT: The Human Diver is a global program: you’re working with instructors from Canada, Egypt, Dubai, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and so on. How far do you want the project to go? Where do you hope it will lead?

    GL: My plan, which is sort of an anti-business plan, is that I don’t teach these – my instructors don’t teach these – as standalone programs: that they’re part and parcel of the agency training materials. The depth, which they go into in an open water level class would be much more brief compared to going to a technical trimix, rebreather or instructor development class. Where I am at the moment, is that my face-to-face and online programs have been running since January 16. For the last four months – and there’s another two months to go – I’ve been training six other instructors to act on my behalf and deliver my program materials around the world. I’ve taught all the way from Seattle down to Mexico; through Europe and the Middle East; Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, and Southeast Asia. Now that there is a base knowledge about this, it’s now getting out there and using these instructors to spread that further.

    Gareth teaching in Mexico – 2018

    JT: The Human Diver course, in addition to other requirements mentioned earlier in this piece, has participants complete a “personal project around a diving issue or subject.” What does that entail?

    GL: For each of the webinars there will be a particular topic: topics covered in the class like situational awareness, decision-making, etc. At the end of the webinars, [students] have to submit a piece of work that related to their own diving: successes or failures or how they dealt with a certain problem. We have six instructors that can now share their experiences within the learning framework I’ve got. They collect stories and their own perspectives, and we critique each others’ behaviors and actions, and that helps them develop their own stories they will teach during their classes. It’s through storytelling that we really learn, rather than data or slides. It’s about making it personal through the instructor and the students.

    JT: Thank you again for meeting with me, Gareth. Is there anything else you’d like to express to our readers?

    GL: One of the key bits that I try to get out there is that people don’t get up in the morning and say, “Today is a great day to die or get bent or injured or upset a student or fail a student.” Whatever they do must have made sense at that time, and in hindsight, we can easily look back and go, “they didn’t do this or they didn’t do that.” Whereas what we need to do is put ourselves in their shoes – in their experience, in their knowledge – without knowledge of the outcome and say how did it made sense. We have to change attitudes to failure, and that’s a key driver I’m trying to get across. It’s difficult because the way humans are wired, in addition to the litigious society that we’re operating in. We often want to find someone to blame, and blame is the enemy of safety. When you start blaming people, the stories get cut short and you only find the story that has to be told instead of the one that should be told.

    Dos Ojos – 2019

    One of my key goals is to try and change attitudes to mistakes people make. We’re all fallible. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, and that was really the reason for using real world stories from people the diving community we’ll know. “They’re people I hold up on a pedestal of excellence. If they make mistakes and can talk about it, then it’s ok for me to do the same.”

    For more information on The Human Diver Project and “Under Pressure”, visit