UK (8 Nov 2006) -- Derek Moore has spent the past 20 years diving in treacherous conditions in the North Sea. Yet it isn´t the rough weather, freezing temperatures or the eight-hour dives carrying out installation and maintenance work on oil rigs, that are the most gruelling aspects – it´s the experience of living in the infamous saturation chamber for a month at a time.
These chambers, situated on support vessels, are the size of a small room, housing six men and allowing them to live under pressure so they are able to undertake multiple dives, at greater depths, over longer periods, with one decompression period of up to six days at the end of a 20-day period. It means more work can be done more economically, and safely.
The chambers, says Moore, are about 4.5m long by 2m wide, with bunk beds, a toilet and shower and a communal table squeezed into the space. Meals, cooked on the vessel, are provided through a special compartment and inmates are cut off from the outside world, with no phones and only a porthole to look through. The main form of entertainment is a 12in television. Moore, 50, from Southport on Merseyside, says it takes a very special person to live in these conditions.
"It´s not everyone´s cup of tea," he says. "Some guys can deal with it, others can´t. It depends on your psychological make-up. You need a good sense of humour and you need to be a bit of an extrovert and get on with your team members.
"You´ve actually got less space than the minimum requirement that Amnesty International lays down for prisoners. Their rule is two-and-half-cubic metres per man and ours is less than that. We had a chap working with us recently from Canada and once he was locked in (to the saturation chamber) he couldn´t handle it and had to come out."
North Sea diving is safer than it was in what Moore describes as the "Klondyke" years of the early oil industry, in the sixties and seventies, when things were fairly unregulated. Yet Moore, whose work involves highly prized welding and metallurgy testing skills, says diving still carries huge risks. Thirty years ago the main attraction was money, but the rewards have now fallen behind those of other offshore workers. It is this disparity that recently brought 900 divers into a pay dispute with employers, one of the most serious in the industry´s history.
After rejecting a 37% pay rise over three years, the divers went on strike on November 1, demanding a 50% rise to bring them up to the level of other offshore workers who have reaped the benefits over the past two decades of soaring profits in the oil and gas industry. Most divers work on a freelance basis and experienced divers can earn up to £46,000 a year. However, they have to pay for their safety certification and training, which can cost up to £20,000.
After more talks this week between the employer groups and the divers union, the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union, a new offer of a 44.7% rise over two years has been hammered out and will be put to members in a referendum this Friday.
Stan Herschel, who has been leading negotiations for the RMT, told reporters: "My members work in appalling conditions and take tremendous risks and I believe the offer on the table now reflects their true value. Obviously, we´ll be seeking further improvements as time goes on but at last we have addressed the situation to a degree of satisfaction. I hope my members will accept that. I sincerely hope we see an end to the strike on Friday."