Feature Article - April 2004
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Safe and Swim

The best risk management practices for pool and waterpark safety

By Kim Tobin


Diving in

Also important to drowning prevention: having clear, defined depth markings, pool bottom lines and highly visible signage.

"For example, if you just see a '4', is it meters or feet?" asks Schwartz of Water's Edge. "If there's just a tick mark by it, you need to be very clear what that is. You'd never want someone to mistake 4 meters for 4 feet, and they dive."

Diving is another huge risk factor when it comes to safety. While there are no universal standards, states and organizations have their own adopted standards. Careful research and due diligence can help bring the right set of standards to a particular facility. Many times, diving competence and the type of facility will also be a factor.

"In recreational facilities, clearances actually need to be deeper than competitive facilities' standards because competitive swimmers are trained and coached," Schwartz adds. "Often, an injury profile is of someone who hasn't been at a pool before, who is enjoying themselves a little too much."

Current local and state regulations should also never take a back seat to whatever standards are in place. It's important to stay up to date on any changes or modifications.

"There should be no diving, no matter how deep, unless that depth is recognized and accepted by your local health department," Mittelstaedt adds. "The manager needs to find out what's appropriate in the areas in accordance with the governing jurisdiction."

One recent change in dive standards for starting blocks has come from several national and many high-school interscholastic associations, which has moved them from 3.5-foot depth standards to 8-foot depth recommendations.

While the construction of many older pools may have been to accommodate blocks on the pool's shallow end, that set-up can be very dangerous for a non-trained diver. The newer recommendations were put into place to help decrease diving dangers.

In many instances, facility managers have responded by moving blocks from their pools' shallow ends to the deep ends. Experts caution that it should not be a permanent solution. For example, in older pools, the deep end may not be even deep enough for diving boards. Costs can increase if timing systems, diving boards or other structural changes outside of the pool also need to be upgraded.

Expenses for any safety modification are many times well worth their insurance against the future costs of injuries or accidents.

"Consultants need to be willing to tell folks bad news," Schwartz says. "We've evaluated even two- or three-year-old facilities, and we'll tell people when something is inappropriate. They need to meet depths and clearances and should meet or exceed all the dive standards put out by various organizations like FINA or U.S. Diving. If you don't, you need to reduce things like length or height or you have to modify the type of the board. They all will directly impact the risk to the patrons. There's a tendency to say something is OKā€”there are lesser standards out there that folks default to because they're more convenient or can save money, but it's extremely important to meet or exceed the most stringent standards when you're dealing with such a crucial safety issue."

Along with structural modifications and the right standards, teaching a better way to dive can also help manage risk, experts say.

Although the American Red Cross recommends not teaching diving unless a facility has nine feet of water, what swimmers do when they hit that water is just as important, according to Clayton.

"That depth is a great idea, but most pools don't have it," he says. "So people then take out their boards. That doesn't solve the problem, because people will still dive."

So, when they do dive, they should keep their arms out in front of their heads, a technique calling "steering up." It's a technique that can lessen injury potential, according to Clayton, who estimates that 75 percent of people dive the traditional way, by bringing their hands behind them as they go underwater.

"As soon as people hit the water, with a traditionally taught dive, they pull their hands back," he says. "This exposes their heads and leaves them vulnerable to injury. The safer way is to teach you to keep your hands straight out in front of you, over your ears, until you start your ascent. I'd permit diving only if it was done that way."

Electrocution

In contrast to the danger hazard of swimmers hitting the water, the potentially deadly hazard of electricity mixing with water also warrants special precautions.

"Electrocution is a huge concern," Schwartz says. "We recommend the use of low-voltage lights, UL-listed fixtures and correct bonding procedures."

Bonding is the connection of all metal in a pool facility to a common copper wire buried in the ground, which is in turn connected to reinforcing steel in a structure. It's essential to reduce voltage gradience throughout the facility, which reduces the risk of being shocked.

"There's a lot of metal that people can touch at any aquatic facility," Schwartz adds. "It all needs to be connected to a bonding system to keep it safe. Some facilities can become lax and not pay as much attention to doing it properly, especially during repairs or construction, but it's essential for safety."