An Introduction to Waterpark Safety & Risk Management
In 2019, 2.25 million people visited the Typhoon Lagoon aquatic park in Orlando, Fla., giving it the distinction of drawing the most visitors that year of any waterpark in the United States. Now consider that there are more than 1,000 waterparks across the country-indoor and outdoor-and you realize that tens of millions of people visit these parks each year. Therefore, waterpark owners and operators must be vigilant to reduce the risk of injuries at their facilities-and the lawsuits that can follow. Waterparks pose a unique set of risks, even though most of the water is shallower than three feet, and operators must ensure that their park is properly maintained and adequately staffed, and that staff members are following applicable regulations and guidelines, which are regulated through a patchwork of federal, state and local laws.
The Red Cross, citing U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates, tells us that more than 4,200 people a year visit emergency rooms to be treated for scrapes, concussions, broken limbs, spinal injuries and other such injuries suffered on public waterslides. Those numbers do not include other waterpark injuries or those who need lifeguard assistance without a hospital trip. In fact, waterslides pose the highest risk of injury at a waterpark, while wave pools have the highest risk of drowning. As part of their lifeguard training and certification offerings, the Red Cross now offers Aquatic Attraction Lifeguarding, designed for participants who wish to lifeguard at waterparks or pools with attractions. The course includes techniques for handling and removing people from water that is generally three feet deep or less, and first aid training emphasizing care for head, neck and spinal injuries.
Of course, waterslides-and other attractions-should be regularly inspected and maintained. Safe operation of waterslides is also critical, and a staff member should be placed at the entrance to these attractions to advise guests on the proper way to ride and to signal when guests are clear to go. Waterslides should have height and age restrictions posted, as well as step-by-step instructions on how to ride. A lifeguard should be stationed at the end of the ride to help guests who require assistance. Waterslides should be well-lit during evening operations and personal flotation devices should always be available.
It's important to be vigilant about cleaning and checking floors and decks for hazards to prevent slips, trips and falls. Ventilation and water systems must be monitored and maintained. Detailed record keeping is imperative, and any injury that does occur should be documented with an incident report, including any eyewitness information. Furthermore, the risk of injury can be reduced with detailed recordkeeping by identifying trends. Guests should sign liability waivers, which can also be a useful tool for warning guests of potential risks. Consider installing surveillance cameras, which can address safety concerns and document irresponsible guest behavior and rule violations.
Cody Butcher is a waterpark specialist with the Neuman Group, an Aquatic Destination Planning and Construction firm. His experience includes being responsible for operations and staff at a large indoor and outdoor aquatic facility, and time spent as director of aquatics and corporate director of waterpark maintenance for the Great Wolf Lodge family of waterparks. He said that waterparks typically perform daily, weekly and monthly inspections and maintenance of attractions and mechanical equipment. "A good preventive maintenance inspection process will minimize breakdowns, maintain satisfactory equipment conditions and improve reliability."
Butcher explained that waterparks are made up of several complex systems that require consistent inspections and upkeep, but each park will have its own unique procedures. "These inspections will help to identify maintenance actions and equipment and incorporate a maintenance program that results in the greatest benefit within the available budget." He listed some categories to consider with a maintenance plan: routine (things you do on a routine or daily basis); preventive maintenance; seasonal maintenance; capital replacement; total rehabilitation; and new attraction.
The maintenance plan, according to Butcher, will depend on many factors, including the age of the facility; type and size of equipment; seasonal vs. year-round park; indoor versus outdoor; qualifications of staff; and organizational needs. He confirmed that inspections and recordkeeping can play a very important role in managing the overall operations of a successful waterpark, and added that most codes allow the operator to develop their own check sheets as long as they contain the minimum required information. "All operators should consult with the authority having jurisdiction if they have questions on what records are required to comply with local codes."
"Some routine inspections can be handled in-house by consulting the Operations and Maintenance manuals", Butcher continued, "but there are many inspections that will require specialized personnel or equipment." He said that there are multiple codes that would apply, and these consultants and subject-matter experts will help ensure the facility will comply with federal, state and local regulations. "Outside inspections can alert the operator to situations they might not be aware of or updates to codes and standard operating procedures."
"Equally necessary is the quality of training the staff receives on the proper and safe operation of the attractions," Butcher said. Before any team member is asked to operate any attraction, they must undergo training in its proper operations, which must include protocols for normal ride operations, malfunctions that could occur, customer concerns and what emergency actions to take when an injury occurs.
Water chemistry is a daily-even hourly-challenge, and large bather loads and other factors can make this challenging for waterparks. "Waterpark water chemistry can be affected by many factors. However, with a modern chemical controller and a well-designed and properly maintained filtration and circulation system, it can be just as easy as a standard swimming pool," said Butcher.
He added that for operators to be successful, they should have a good understanding of their chemical delivery systems. "All operators should seek additional training and certification from sources like the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance Certified Pool Operator (CPO) or the National Recreation and Park Association Aquatic Facility Operator (AFO) or their equivalent."
Butcher pointed out that in addition to managing exceptional water quality, indoor waterparks must also be concerned with indoor air quality to keep their patrons safe. He shared that there are many things an owner can do up front, starting with water quality and focusing on water circulation systems; heating, treating and filtering; chemical delivery systems; and secondary disinfection systems. Additionally, focus on air quality, which includes well-designed and properly maintained HVAC systems; sufficient turnover; energy efficiency; and well-maintained mechanical spaces.
Deep River Waterpark is located in Crown Point Ind., operated by the Lake County Parks and Recreation Department. Since opening in 1995, the popular park has expanded and nearly doubled in size, featuring body slides, tube slides, dueling bowl slides, an action river, a wave pool and an interactive family play structure. The Dragon is a speed slide complex featuring a 60-foot drop. The Kraken is a six-lane mat racer ride.
Chris Nawracaj is Deep River's general manager, and he described how each of their opening department leads performs an inspection in their respective areas each morning before opening. "Food leads are checking food stands and kitchens, park services is checking bathrooms and cabanas, water safety is checking backboards, slide towers, catch pools-making sure grates are attached and things like that."
Nawracaj said that their maintenance manager and operations manager rotate a more in-depth entire facility inspection that gets completed weekly. "We also have a few firemen who have worked with us for a number of years on a part-time basis, and we'll add them in on weeks as well. They'll also go around and doublecheck our fire extinguishers and kitchen hood suppression systems. We find having multiple sets of eyes going through the facility really helps." He said their cleaning crew also starts a few hours before the park opens and will stay for a couple more hours after the park closes. "They are also here throughout the day cleaning up the park and bathrooms."
And while all the various departments are equally important, Nawracaj points out that they can't have a waterpark without properly balanced water. "Our chemical controllers on all our pools get checked hourly and recorded on log sheets so we can go back and look at them if need be. Then three times throughout the day we do a more involved water chemistry test using a photometer. These results get put into a spreadsheet that can then be pulled up on a manager's phone out in the field."
Life jackets are available for interested patrons free of charge and on a first-come-first-serve basis, according to Nawracaj, in sizes from infant to adult. "Guests are also welcome to bring their own into the park as long as it's approved by the U.S. Coast Guard." And as with most aquatic parks, Deep River is available to rent for birthday parties and other private events. Nawracaj said they supply all staffing for the events, just as if the facility were open, therefore following all the normal safety protocols.
Nawracaj said all of their lifeguards are trained in-house-typically around 200 each season. "Once they're trained we have in-service every two weeks in order to meet the requirements of the Red Cross, who all our guards are certified through." But he added that the lifeguard shortage this year and general hiring difficulties of late affected all of their departments. "We've never seen so few applications coming into the summer; generally we've had more than enough to pick from. We've had to raise our base pay to try and attract more people."
Darin Barr is a principal at Ballard King & Associates, a recreation consulting firm, and he said it seems like many municipal agencies running aquatic facilities are indeed having a difficult time currently providing an adequate number of lifeguards. "It is my opinion that some of this is due to COVID and it shifting the workforce. I think another part of it is that we continue to ask lifeguards to do more and more, and their level of compensation has not kept pace." He added that in some cases, the talent pool from which you'd pull lifeguards is now focusing on year-round athletics, academic pursuits and other service organizations they feel will greatly benefit their admission to a school or place of higher learning in comparison to a part-time lifeguard job. "I could foresee year-round aquatic operations moving toward full-time lifeguards in the not-so-distant future, especially to achieve operating hours during the morning and school time."
Butcher agreed that more than ever, the methods of lifeguarding are evolving, and the term has become equivalent to an emergency responder. "Lifeguards wear many hats and oversee the safety of bathers, provide customer service, monitor pool chemistry and operate bigger, taller and faster waterslides and attractions. Today's waterpark lifeguards receive training in spinal management, CPR, AED, basic first aid and providing emergency oxygen." He added that in some cases, lifeguards receive training in nonaquatic-related emergencies, including the administration of lifesaving drugs like Narcan and Epinephrine injections.
Sarah Sielisch is the aquatic manager of Pelican Harbor, an indoor/outdoor aquatic park in Bolingbrook, Ill., operated by the Bolingbrook Park District. She said they were lucky enough not to be too adversely affected by the lifeguard shortage in 2021. "We had 90 lifeguards this summer, a comfortable number would be 110 for us, however we had a very strong team who really wanted to work. We did not have to close down any attractions this year, and most of our lifeguards took on more than one position for us, such as being a party host, concessions, park attendant, swim instructor, etc."
The guards at Pelican Harbor are trained in-house through a very intense lifeguard certification course, according to Sielisch. "We require our lifeguards to swim 100 yards without stopping, then another 100 yards with a tube without stopping, tread (water) for one minute without hands, two minutes with hands and retrieve a 10-pound brick at the bottom of the 12.6-foot pool. A new guard class is 22 hours, and a renewal is 18." After that she said the guards maintain their certifications by attending four hours of in-service each month, at minimum. The guards are also in charge of rule enforcement, along with the park attendants.
Butcher said that over many years, professional waterpark operators have developed maintenance, operations, inspection and personnel training programs to ensure guest safety. And as the rides and attractions become faster and more significant, there is an increased focus on these programs. "Waterpark professionals are working hand-in-hand with ride manufacturers, standards-setting agencies like IAAPA and ASTM International, government agencies and in close collaboration with other like-minded professionals to continually update their standard operating procedures."
Back in Illinois, Sielisch described how they inspect every attraction before opening their facility. "We do slide checks, ladder checks and inspect every body of water. We also test every body of water before allowing people into the park, then we check every two hours after that." She said the biggest thing about running a waterpark is making sure you have strong leaders who take it seriously and understand the importance of safety. "Our management team prides themselves on their safety. They are constantly doing observation checks and tests on the lifeguards throughout hours of operation to make sure they are being the best lifeguard they can be. We hold our lifeguards to a high expectation of being vigilant on the stand. That is one of the biggest, most important things about a waterpark; making sure your staff gets the importance of safety." RM