Decompression illness is a very real threat to commercial divers' safety and well-being.

There's nothing routine about commercial diving contractors' daily grind. What they're doing one day can be something very different 24 hours later. But no matter where their underwater services are called for, there's a risk that they all share in common: decompression sickness.

Otherwise known as "the bends," decompression illness (DCI) is a potentially deadly condition that occurs when the ambient pressure surrounding the body escapes faster than it's supposed to, usually when moving from one position to another too quickly.

As noted by the Divers Alert Network, the human body is consistently surrounded by pressure at any given moment, whether on land or in the deep ends of the ocean. But few places are more pressure-filled – in the literal and figurative sense of the phrase – than underwater, increasing the farther down divers swim. Indeed, as noted by eMedicine Health, there's a direct relationship between nitrogen buildup and ocean depth, growing by roughly 11.6 pounds per square inch for every 33 feet below the surface.

How DCI typically occurs
Calm though the waters may seem, conditions can get potentially dangerous when divers are finished with their work and make their way to the top. If they move to the surface too quickly, pressure diminishes at a rapid rate, too fast for the body to keep up without experiencing adverse side effects, which may include dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue, itchy skin and ringing in the ears, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is compounded by an inordinate amount of nitrogen that builds in the bloodstream, which can prevent blood from flowing normally if the gas becomes excessive.

Though rapid ascents are the main cause of decompression illness, DCI can strike under a variety of circumstances, even when precautions are taken. Indeed, approximately 1,000 divers are diagnosed with DCI each year, according to the DAN, typically occurring in hazardous confines, like frigidly cold waters or during unusually long dives.

DCI can also happen in relatively shallow conditions, like the inside of a water tank. The Boston Globe reported that a commercial diver had to be rescued recently while cleaning the interior of a water tank in Plymouth, Massachusetts, located south of the Bay State's capital city. The unnamed diver was escorted to Massachusetts General Hospital, where doctors identified symptoms that were classic signs of DCI.

The following are a few other physical manifestations of DCI, according to the CDC and DAN:

  • Joint pain, especially around the shoulders and neck.
  • Marbling of skin, accompanied by a pinkish or reddish hue.
  • Bladder problems.
  • Rash.
  • Chest pain.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Cough.
  • Blue-colored lips, otherwise known as cyanosis.
  • Disorientation.

Treatment needed immediately
DCI is eminently treatable, which is why many maritime employers have decompression chambers at the ready so divers exhibiting symptoms can get the attention they need right away. However, timing is of the essence, because left untreated, the effects of DCI can be irreversible, resulting in paralysis, involuntary convulsions or permanent damage to the central nervous system.

Check out the DAN's web page for more details on DCI and what can be done to prevent it.

Nothing is more important than your divers' health and well-being. Fisk Marine Insurance International offers a wide range of insurance products, including coverage for hospitalization, short- and long-term disability as well as life insurance.

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