Feature Article - April 2004
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Safe and Swim

The best risk management practices for pool and waterpark safety

By Kim Tobin

Drowning potential

In 2000, there were 3,482 unintentional drownings in the United States, which represents an average of nine people per day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the number does not represent the tragedies present solely in commercial pools, it helps illustrate the pervasiveness of the problem.

At aquatic facilities, drowning can be influenced by a number of factors, from staff training to water clarity to signage and correct safety markings in a pool.

In the area of staff training, many in the industry agree that lifeguard vigilance is one of the biggest controllable factors when it comes to protecting patrons' lives.

As a job, lifeguarding has traditionally been performed sitting down, which can promote attention lags. That very method is now being scrutinized to help improve the decline in alertness that can come from sitting for too long.

The Five-Minute Scanning Strategy is a systematic approach to lifeguard surveillance that requires lifeguards to vary their posture and scanning pattern every five minutes. Pioneered and developed by Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., at Penn State University, the technique was designed to increase alertness, decrease boredom and hopefully save lives.

"Diligence on the part of the lifeguards is number one when it comes to safety," says Adolph Kiefer, a long-time aquatic industry veteran based in Zion, Ill. "The lifeguard is not just somebody serving hamburgers. He or she has a direct responsibility for the lives of people, and training should be of that quality. The new Griffiths technique and new lower guard chairs are an outstanding example of how research and development is enhancing safety and how to best practice it."

To help promote more activity and help a guard change positions more effectively, newer lifeguard chairs have been designed with a lower profile than a traditional "high-chair" style lifeguard chair. The stations, which have a bigger platform, allow a guard to sit or stand and easily move in or out of the station.


Another factor in drowning potential is the hazard of entrapment, which can occur when parts of the body or hair can get trapped by the suction fitting or drain cover in a pool. While several states are currently in the process of passing and codifying safety standards to prevent entrapment dangers, safety consultants and industry groups are trying to get the word out with steps that facility managers can take to guard against accidents.

"The main thing is, facility managers and operators must comply with all the new codes and that they inspect their drains on a daily basis to make sure they are secured properly," says Ron Schroader, a Lake Worth, Fla., aquatic safety consultant and educator. "If a drain cover shows any signs of deterioration, discoloration or degeneration (including cracks or fractures), it should be replaced immediately. Don't take a chance."

Schroader also added that it's imperative that managers never exceed recommended flow rates for drain covers.

"They're all rated for specific criteria," he says. "For example, if hair becomes entangled at 80 gallons a minute, you don't want that be your flow—you want the recommended lower and safer flow rate."

Operators can take several other precautionary steps to decrease entrapment danger. From a maintenance and equipment perspective, four layers of protection are currently recommended.

They include:

  1. Installing at least two hydraulically balanced main drains per pump.
  2. Installing an approved ANSI/NSF-50 drain cover.
  3. Installing a safety vacuum release system, which reads for sudden increases in vacuum suction (that will happen as soon as an entrapment occurs) and kills a pump when it reads an increase.
  4. Installing an emergency shutoff button or kill switch for the pumps, somewhere nearby on the facility premises.

From an education standpoint, knowledge is also power when it comes to preventing entrapment.

"Keep people away from the drains, and teach children to stay away from them," Schroader adds. "Education is the only way to be successful."

Signage that helps heighten swimmers' awareness of entrapment is also available. For more information, visit the Web site of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission at www.cpsc.gov and the National Spa and Pool Institute at www.nspi.org.