What does this mean?
Due to laws sanctioned around most European countries, it’s illegal to drive a car and use a handheld device. This is for safety reasons, both for the car driver and for fellow road users. While providing definitive evidence is problematic, it is likely that official statistics understate the problem. Clearly, driving a car while simultaneously trying to update your social media feed or send a text leaves you less focused on the road. This is due to a phenomenon known as ‘task loading,’ and it’s an issue in scuba diving and scuba diver training as well.
What is task loading?
In 1988, a psychologist John Sweller of the University of New South Wales, Australia released the following study. A cognitive load theory proposed that; “as a result of higher cognitive load, a stimulus is more difficult to pay attention to.”
The term ‘task load’ indicates the degree of difficulty you experience when performing a task. ‘Task loading’ describes the accumulation of tasks that are necessary to perform an operation. This loading of multiple tasks — and the subsequent distraction and stress it causes — is common when it comes to scuba diving.
Be attentive when task loading;
Noticing incidences of task loading in diving is easier for experienced divers. However, it’s sometimes less apparent when you are a beginner, starting out on your diving journey. During your PADI Open Water course ‘task loading’ may increase due to the accumulation of any number of tasks. This can be above or below the surface. Task loading requires a diver or instructor to divert their attention from the matter at hand.
For example; a new diver is trying to navigate a reciprocal compass course. The diver must navigate while simultaneously maintaining buoyancy control mid-water.
Another example; An Instructor attempting to descend and control a group of multiple inexperienced divers. This skill task-loads the instructor as they must stay neutrally buoyant and equalises their ears. But, at the same time deal with student problems who are inexperienced at descending together.
What problems can excessive task loading cause?
Too many tasks simultaneously can cause confusion and stress. This is often apparent with beginner divers who have to remove their mask, clear and replace. As an Instructor, we often see a cycle of perpetual narrowing when our student focuses primarily on just the one task, to the detriment of the overall skill. Going back to mask removal, replace and clear; here we see the focus on flooding the mask and removing it, but the breathing technique fails without the mask in place. This is ‘task loading’ for a beginner diver and it requires both time and practice. Sometimes this leads to a diver losing control, losing control of their buoyancy or worse case, a diving incident!
Something as simple as gearing up on a boat, that we, experienced divers do as a daily routine is for inexperienced divers a daunting task-load. Descending in deep water with a buddy, maintaining direction and depth control requires an awareness that novice divers may struggle with.
This is the reason why Instructors must be patient and introduce the task-load slowly and only when the student is ready.
Task loading and new divers;
It is of utmost importance that task-loading is introduced slowly to introductory-level divers. Making sure the previous task is well mastered before moving forward. This is why a beginner diver makes a controlled descent using a descent line or a sloping bottom. As a result, making the task of equalisation easier and preventing an ear squeeze.
Multi-tasking, such as a free descent and equalisation can prove challenging for new divers. Asking a student diver, mid-water to stop and check their air gauge, without losing buoyancy control is multi-tasking and difficult to carry out as a novice. Instructors should take note if their students are comfortable with their skills. Some students require more time to practice, and if they are ‘not there yet’ do not increase the task load. We must all remember as Instructors, a good, solid foundation is much easier to build upon than an unstable and an inconsistent one.
Task loading and advanced divers;
Basic skills at an advanced level should not cause a problem, but Instructors should perform a check dive to be sure! Increasing tasks are added as diver competencies improve. These task-loading skills can be any of the following;
Compass navigation whilst maintaining neutral buoyancy.
Pointing out and noting hazardous points on an underwater slate whilst diving a wreck.
Maintaining neutral buoyancy and staying close to your buddy while completing your open water course dive four.
Rescue diver students will experience even more task-loading. Not only must the rescue-diver student deal with their own issues in water, but they must also deal with another divers issue too. This might include an unresponsive diver while maintaining buoyancy control and staying calm.
Finding a missing diver using an underwater search pattern, or ascending and dealing with the unresponsive diver at the surface is a huge task.
Advanced task-loading is introduced as divers progress. But here, all basic foundation skills must be fully mastered before introducing more.
Task-loading may also include carrying and using extra equipment. The use of underwater propulsion vehicles, diving at night and carrying torches or using lines and reels during the cavern course is all extra loads to master.
Planned vs unplanned task;
Dive guides and Instructors have planned tasks to carry out during a dive, such as-monitoring the depth and comfort of all divers in their group. However, emergencies or unplanned tasks can occur, requiring the instructor or dive guide to manage challenging circumstances. These circumstances might include divers experiencing vertigo, diver distress or equalisation problems. Separation from the dive guide or from the buddy can cause challenging circumstances for dive leaders. Equipment malfunction or failure to observe gas supplies can cause a huge disruption throughout a dive for both the divers and Instructors or guides alike.
How to avoid task loading?
Plan the dive conservatively. Check you can conduct the dive safely including all the tasks that you wish to complete. Make sure you have the correct equipment configuration and exposure suits for the dive. Plan and consider any contingency measures as well as emergency issues. If the dive site offers all that you need, go ahead with the planned dive. If you find the dive site is borderline on safety grounds, change your objective or postpone the dive.
Be familiar with your equipment and do not use new or unfamiliar dive gear at night. If you need to test the equipment do this throughout the day at a shallow and familiar dive site. Talk to your dive group and be familiar with the equipment in your group. Check the hand signals system and discuss how they share air if required to do so. Remind each other who is the donor and who is the receiver. Make sure your students know how alternate air source hoses clip in and how to remove them. Your student should know if you will replace the Alternate Air Source or if they should clip it back into place. A reminder of how the purge button on the regulator works. This helps to reduce anxiety and stress for beginners.
Take only what you need and avoid looking like a Christmas tree! Too much gear might prove to be a problem in case of an emergency, especially a dangling compass, torch or camera. If you need certain equipment make sure you stow them correctly.
Do the buddy check and make sure your students do it too. The first problems occur when students enter the water without a weight belt or their cylinders are not turned on! As a guide or instructor, make sure you carry a DSMB.
Plan your dive and dive your plan. If you have to change dive sites, inform someone back at base. Agree on the maximum depth, dive time, turning point etc. and keep to as close to the plan as possible. Stay in your qualified depth level and stay with your buddy. Check your air consumption and check that of your students.
Remember: If you have diving insurance to a depth of 40 meters, and you are not qualified to that depth, your insurance will not pay out in the unlikely event of an accident.
Dive safe everyone!