We all balk at the thought of being dropped into water containing raw sewage, because the mere idea of it disgusts us. How could anybody be expected to freely enter such a world of filth and contamination? This is a job that simply has to be done, sometimes, and a few brave souls are willing to do it.
Most people would shun it, but Brendan Walsh likes his job as a professional diver – after all, he’s been one for over 25 years. He tells it like it is when it comes to sewer diving. To quote his words:
“I’ve done about 1000 hours of sewage diving. Working in a pit of sewage is very difficult; you can’t see anything for a start, so everything’s done by feel. You have to be quite mechanical to work out what’s wrong, and how to fix it, and you also have to be able to relay your thoughts in a clear manner so the support guys on the surface can think about the same problem. We have full two-way communications, so the divers can talk through the job”.
“It all has to be done in zero visibility; a lot of times we’re placing equipment within a millimetre, so you’re drilling holes and using hammers blind. All professional divers tend to be tradesmen first. We can be under several metres of sewage for up to four hours. The first metre or two of sewage can be quite dense. We’ve had it that thick that the guys have dropped spanners and they haven’t fallen. It’s just pure black, you can’t see anything. It can be very claustrophobic and it takes careful planning before you go ahead”.
“You can walk through the sewage but not really swim. We’ve had times when there were big islands we’ve had to remove when pumps have broken down. We’ve had to go in with big suction heads and suck 500 foot of solid poo out. It doesn’t smell bad at all for the diver; he’s normally on processed air. The hardest job is the people who have to wash them down and clean them up afterwards. It’s a very serious job. We have stand-by divers fully dressed and ready to go in case something goes wrong. We have people in full plastic protective gear for the wash down.”
Walsh continues: “For one dive we’d have a minimum support team of five people. For a sewage dive we have the full contamination rubber suits that cost about $7500 and last about 150 to 300 dives. The helmets we wear weigh about 11 kilograms, so just to walk along before you get in the water takes a lot of strength, if you fall over you can do yourself major damage. It’s full-encapsulation diving, which means you’re fully dry inside the suit, it has sealed cuffs on it, so nothing touches the skin. We don’t come out smelling at all because there’s no contact”.
“The work can be dangerous if things go wrong and you don’t plan properly. When you’re about to get in for the first time you stand on the side and hope the suit doesn’t let you down. The worst thing that can happen in a sewage dive is if you tear the suit and the suit floods. I’m pretty careful, so it’s never happened to me. You might occasionally get a glove tear but that’s really no difference to a piece of toilet paper ripping in the morning, though you still have to abort the dive and clean and disinfect the diver’s hands. It’s a very big health issue. My divers have every available injection they can get. Every single diver has to have every inoculation on the list because there are numerous diseases floating around in there”.
“We have to run a training course for sewage diving and test the divers a lot before we let them loose. We do a test run in a pool, dress them in all the gear and make sure they’re happy because we charge a lot of money for this work and we need to know the guy can handle it. It’s very satisfying to do the job in absolute zero visibility. It’s about as high a level of diving that we can do, and it looks very good on a diver’s log book to say that he’s done the full-contamination, encapsulation diving”.
These words give a much clearer picture of a sewer diver’s life than anyone who doesn’t actually do the job could. It is without doubt the dirtiest, smelliest, most obnoxious job one can imagine having to do, yet those who do it take pride in their work. Like the old English saying goes, tellingly, “there’s nowt as queer as folk”!