Army Cited after 3 Diving Deaths


Federal health and safety investigators have issued citations against the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Test Center in the first of three diving deaths that occurred just weeks apart earlier this year.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued notices to the Test Center, part of the Aberdeen Proving Ground, regarding alleged violations of commercial diving safety standards related to the death of George H. Lazzaro Jr., 41.

The engineering technician and former Marine was killed Jan. 30 doing what was to have been a routine maintenance dive at the center's Underwater Explosion (UNDEX) Test Facility, a 150-foot-deep, blast-resistant facility known as the "Super Pond."

Lazzaro worked at Aberdeen's Firepower Directorate.

2 More Deaths

Three weeks after Lazzaro died, two Navy divers perished Feb. 26 while diving as part of a training exercise in the Super Pond.

After Lazzaro's death, Aberdeen Test Center Commander Col. Gordon A. Graham ordered all civilian dives halted, but the Feb. 26 dive went ahead as scheduled at the request of the Navy, which was responsible for the operation, said Robin Boggs, an APG public affairs officer, the Cecil Daily reported.

“The Navy military dive team (conducted) their dive operations in the UTF using their own procedures, equipment and personnel,” Boggs told the news outlet.

“The Navy team was briefed on the Jan. 30 accident prior to their operation. In line with policy, the Navy performed the appropriate risk assessments and ensured proper safety measures were in place in accordance with the U.S. Navy Diving Manual.”

Pond Closed

After the sailors died, Maj. Gen. Genaro J. Dellarocco, chief of the Army Test and Evaluation Command, ordered the pond closed during the investigation into all three deaths.

ATC Super Pond
U.S. Army

A diver works in the Aberdeen Test Center "Super Pond," which was closed after three divers (not pictured) died in less than a month earlier this year. The investigations continue.

"It was one of the safest facilities we had on the installation," Dellarocco told The Baltimore Sun.

Commander Fired

The three deaths led to the removal May 9 of Cmdr. Michael Runkle as commanding officer of the Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, which is part of the Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group (EODGRU) 2.

The Navy cited "safety concerns," "command climate weaknesses," "morale issues," and "a lack of leadership involvement" in the decision to relieve Runkle of his duties.

"Runkle was relieved due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command," the Navy said in an announcement.

The Navy said it had initiated a command climate survey in January that "confirmed morale issues" at the unit. A new investigation after the sailors' deaths "brought to light continued command climate weaknesses" and "revealed safety concerns that were not previously known," the Navy said.

Court Martial Investigation

The Navy has released no details surrounding the sailors' deaths. On May 1, the Navy announced that it had opened a Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) Article 32 (court martial) investigation into the two deaths.

U.S. Army

The Aberdeen Test Center, part of the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, tests torpedoes, missiles, warheads, submarines and other military equipment.

Specifically, the Navy said it was weighing charges of Dereliction of Duty and Involuntary Manslaughter.

OSHA is also investigating the accidents.

New Citations

Meanwhile, OSHA has reported 11 hazards discovered during inspections after Lazzaro's death. The inspection was OSHA's first ever at the Test Center.

Seven serious safety violations allege, in part:

  • Improper training of divers;
  • Lack of a qualified, designated person in charge on the surface to manage all aspects of a dive;
  • Allowing diving activities to be performed without a standby diver;
  • Not maintaining continuous visual contact of other divers;
  • No reserve breathing air supply during diving activities; and
  • Using breathing air to operate diver's buoyancy control rather than solely for breathing purposes.

A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

Diver training
U.S. Army

A diver jumps into the pond at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 2011.

Four other-than-serious violations allege failure to, among other things:

  • Have a safe-work practices manual and dive compression tables available at the dive site;
  • Maintain a depth profile (a record of how deep each diver goes during a dive); and
  • Dive-specific information for all divers.

OSHA has health and safety authority over other federal government agencies, but it cannot impose fines on them. An OSHA "notice" to a government agency is similar to a citation or violation to a private employer.

"Tragedies, such as this, can be prevented by following OSHA's commercial diving operations standards, which are in place to protect divers from risk of serious hazards, including drowning, hypothermia, circulatory and respiratory problems," said Michael Stracka, acting director of OSHA's Baltimore/Washington Area Office.

"All employers, especially those engaged in high-hazard activities such as diving, must provide a safe working environment for their employees."

About the Test Center

The Aberdeen Test Center provides test and test support services for authorized customers within and outside the Department of Defense, including domestic and foreign government and nongovernment organizations.

Built in 1995, the facility is used to test torpedoes, missiles, warheads, submarines and other military equipment. It employs approximately 759 workers. The Super Pond measures 1,070 feet long and 920 feet wide, with a maximum depth of 150 feet.

The OSHA notice will become a final order if the ATC does not request an informal conference with OSHA's area director in the Baltimore/Washington Area Office within 15 business days.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Education; Engineers; Fatalities; Government; Health & Safety; U.S. Army; U.S. Navy; Worker training

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