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 (; USA Swimming (; USA Diving (; the National Federation of State High School Associations (; FINA (; the world-wide swimming sports governing organization, National Spa and Pool Institute (; and ASTM International ( 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.

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 and the National Spa and Pool Institute at

Detection tools

While drowning prevention is a task that humans take seriously, it's being aided with the help of machines specifically designed for the task as well. New safety monitoring systems include underwater cameras that provide images of a pool bottom to help staff monitor bodies in the water, while others use motion detection that sets off an alarm if a swimmer is on the bottom for too long. With their role in providing additional drowning protection, the devices should always be just aids, however, and should never replace qualified, vigilant staff.

"It's an enhancement to reduce risk," adds Dave Schwartz, P.E., a licensed engineer and owner of Water's Edge Aquatic Design, an aquatic facility master-planning firm in Lenexa, Kan. "But, like any other device, you've got to use it correctly. If there are multiple pools, you have seconds to look for someone, and if you have to spend minutes looking for someone, that's an issue. The systems have applications for indoor facilities, where someone's not necessarily on deck all of the time but is in an office."

"The systems can be expensive, but not as much as a law suit," adds Robert D. Clayton, Ed.D., president of Aquatic Partners, a risk management consulting and education firm in Ft. Collins, Colo. "Although they're not very common yet, they are invaluable in sites like waterparks, where everyone has an inner tube, and you can't see the bottom. They can definitely help enhance safety in such situations."

They also can help with another glaring issue.

"Underwater surveillance is also desirable for indoor pools that have glare on the water (architects just love to put up glass sliding panels so that bathers can go outside and sun)," Clayton says. "Unfortunately, it means that glare obscures a large section of the pool. Lifeguards cannot see the bottom, and a person could be underwater until some swimmer or person looking from a different angle sees the victim."

Critical Hazardous Areas

Culled from the opinions of aquatic world safety watchdogs, the following is a list of common hazards and causes of potential injury at aquatic centers. View them as front and center on your facility's risk radar screen and implement recommended actions, if necessary.

DIVING: Follow new dive-block depth recommendations (at least eight feet) and implement structural changes to accommodate them, such as modifications to boards or timing systems.

DIVE BOARDS: Check that enough nonslip grit is present and that bolts and side rails are intact. Also, make sure stairs are cleaned regularly and are not slippery.

LIFESAVING EQUIPMENT: Have the appropriate equipment in accordance with your certifying health department agency. Check first-aid kits, back boards, head immobilizers, CPR masks, neck braces, safety hoods, reaching poles, life rings and rescue tubes.

RESUSCITATION EQUIPMENT: Have the right equipment in accordance with your certifying health department agency and the American Red Cross.

DECKING: Install "No Running" signage on deck. The deck should have a splash or wet area. The use of sunscreens can result in slick spots. Stay aware of what areas can become slippery from oils and lotions and place appropriate signage in those areas, which are often steps into the pool, gutter systems and outside of showers.

FENCING: Every outdoor pool needs to have fencing around its perimeter at a height of about six feet. Gates should self-latch and have less than four-inch openings in vertical bars or slots or have small mesh size and a lock. In many cases, children can squeeze through or climb over or under inadequate fencing.

LOCKER ROOMS: Display slip caution signage. Many people don't realize that water on the floor creates slip hazards.

NIGHT BARRIERS AROUND POOL: Install them. Without a fence or cover to secure the pool and prevent access, improper or unscheduled use can tempt when a pool is officially closed. Many accidents have happened, including drownings, from swimming and diving at night.

POOL DEPTH: There should be no diving unless a depth is recognized and accepted by a state's health department. Additionally, line a pool bottom correctly and clearly. It allows divers to better see the bottom and its profile, allowing more accurate judgments about depth.

SIGNAGE: Have enough of it and provide direction on what visitors should and should not do, as well as point out hazards. Essentials include "No Diving" signs where necessary, pool capacity signs, emergency signs, proper CPR instructions and commercial pool rules.

Water chemistry education

Having a sparkling clean pool with clear water not only looks inviting but is also a factor in drowning prevention, as well as disease prevention and other health ills.

"If your pool is cloudy, or something is not balanced, there is more of a drowning risk, a pool closure risk from the health department or even conditions you might not know about (like the presence of e.coli)," says Rick Dempsey, an aquatic consultant and educator based in Houston, Texas. "Education in water chemistry and equipment, awareness of waterborne diseases, and the aesthetics of water chemistry are critical to safe, smooth operation."

Dempsey points to a lack of education in water chemistry as a big contributor to pool problems.

"Out of agencies and municipalities out there, only about 30 percent of managers get good training," he says. "That training directive has to come from management. Operators don't always know where to get it and won't necessarily go to a director to ask."

Problems can build up.

"If the pool water is not a major problem, it's not the number-one priority, and few people are involved," Dempsey continues. "However, when the pool is not doing well, everyone gets involved. That's where management, if it knew and made more of an effort for staff to get the proper training, could help stop problems before they started."

Managers and operators should have both broad knowledge of water chemistry in general as well as knowing the particulars of their facility's water characteristics.

"Rules and values for things like free chlorine and combined chlorine can change so much from state to state and county to county," says John Carnesi, owner of Just4Kids Swim School in Baltimore, Md. "Water makeup itself is also very different across states as well, from alkalinity to calcium hardness. So, what works for me in Baltimore doesn't necessarily work for people in California. You have to become very knowledgeable about what your own water is like and how you deal with it in your area. I've been to so many classes where people teach the basics, and that's it."

Carnesi recently took the time to additionally educate himself and his staff in water chemistry. The changes he implemented in his chlorine delivery method as a result of his knowledge has helped his pool run more efficiently and helped eliminate a chloramine problem that had been plaguing his facility on and off for a few years.

"We spent an enormous amount of wasted time trying to learn how to fix our problems," he says. "We don't worry as much anymore. Know your locality's rules, your water's chemistry and take ownership of the potential danger that can exist. I've spent an enormous amount of money insuring that, for the infants I put into the water, their safety comes first."

Carnesi also cautions against operating with an "if it's not broken, then don't fix it" philosophy.

"Certain places will try to get by with the least amount they can do," he says. "The health departments are stretched thin. They can show up for one month and not show up again for six months. You can't say, 'OK, I just have to fix it once every six months and run it into the ground in between.' It really falls upon the integrity of the facility owner and them making sure they put everything into place to provide a safe environment—they can't just rely on the health department to do it."

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 OK—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."


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."

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