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Feature Article - April 2004

Safe and Swim

The best risk management practices for pool and waterpark safety

By Kim Tobin


The roof collapse at Transvaal Park waterpark outside Moscow this past February killed at least 25 people and sent shock waves of concern around the world. Reports on causes of the collapse ranged from a possibly too heavy snow load to air temperature differences between the inside and outside of the facility. However, the strongest evidence for the cause of the tragedy seems to point to shoddy construction practices and alleged negligence on the part of the builder, with prosecutors launching a criminal investigation into the allegation.

While causes appear to be unrelated to waterpark operations, the Moscow collapse validates the need for a facility to be in step with all issues that pose potential causes of life endangerment. That can start with the building of a facility. You can't have a comprehensive risk management program being implemented between a less-than-sound roof and walls.

It's simple, but obviously the writing was not on the wall at Transvaal. A facility should be designed by licensed engineers and/or architects who are knowledgeable about building recreational facilities, and it's imperative to build to local codes and conduct inspections. Likewise, there needs to be some type of process in place to evaluate potential structural problems and corrective steps to take to remedy them.

The following will help shed some light on the best risk management practices for aquatic environments where building integrity is not the biggest danger factor. We'll explore the basics of risk management and how to address today's biggest safety concerns to prevent trouble from surfacing and potentially jeopardizing the lives of your patrons and your facility.

Risk management: the fundamentals

Developing a sound risk management program is one of the basic blueprints for safe operation at any aquatic facility. That program often begins with adopting the correct standards and checklists. The right ones are found by researching what is most appropriate for a particular facility, industry experts say.

"To make the right choices, check laws and regulations mandated by state or local governments, as well as recommendations from various industry organizations," says Arthur Mittelstaedt Jr., Ed.D., executive director of The Recreation Safety Institute, a safety and risk management advocacy institute based in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. "For example, know your lifeguard certification standards. At waterparks, the certifying body is often Ellis & Associates. At municipal pools, it's the American Red Cross. At agencies, it's the YMCA. In some states, the state health department will accept all of the standards; in others, they're very particular, so it's incumbent on the facility manager to make sure he knows the state and local health codes that regulate the pool."

Depending on the facility, various national associations that offer checklist guidance include the National Aquatic Coalition (www.naqc.org); USA Swimming (www.usswim.org); USA Diving (www.usdiving.org); the National Federation of State High School Associations (www.nfhs.org); FINA (www.fina.org); the world-wide swimming sports governing organization, National Spa and Pool Institute (www.nspi.org); and ASTM International (www.astm.org). A number of equipment manufacturers may also have their own recommended checklists.

As part of a basic risk management program, experts also recommend establishing a safety committee to review risk findings as well. An appointed safety officer should create a committee made up of critical staff. For example, it could include the maintenance superintendent, the municipality's or business' legal counsel, an insurance representative, a purchasing representative, and any other staff who may be making decisions that would influence risk.

High on the risk program's list of priorities is also mitigating the hazards and causes of injury at a facility (see sidebar on page 24). From pool depth to signage to safety equipment, knowing common critical hazardous areas can decrease dangerous elements before they can become issues.

Other important components of effective risk management include keeping the whole team in the loop about safety and using outside auditing to keep risk in check.

Auditing can also help strengthen and unite staff in working toward the common goals of safety at a facility, according to Scot Hunsaker, president of St. Louis-based Counsilman/Hunsaker & Associates, an aquatic design, engineering and planning firm.

"Auditing is so important to not only provide accountability for lifeguards, but it also materially changes the relationship between the facility manager and the lifeguard," Hunsaker says. "Instead of being boss and trying to coach a rival relationship between each other, a supervisor and an employee working with a third-party auditor places the supervisor and employee on the same side. It creates a more powerful working relationship, as opposed to a more adversarial one."

Even with a sound risk management program in place, the "biggies," or safety issues that require exceptional vigilance against include: drowning, diving, water quality and electrocution.

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