Feature Article - April 2002
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Pool, Waterpark and Beach Safety

An in-depth look at the biggest risks facing aquatic facilities

By Mitch Martin

If anyone ever doubts the inherent danger of watery environments, that doubt can be quickly quashed by a look at a 2001 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission alert. In that publication, the commission reported that since 1984, 275 young children have drowned in one of the most mundane of household cleaning items: the 5-gallon bucket. Many of the toddlers and infants died when they were left alone for very short amounts of time by caregivers.

By this simple example, the water-related risks and hazards are just as great—if not obviously more complex—for pools and waterparks, or any place else where people and water are put in the equation.

While aquatic programming is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the recreation world, it is also the most in need of rigorous safety programs.

For example, drowning is the second leading cause of injury death for children from the age of one to 14, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In 1998, 940 drowning deaths occurred among these young children, according to the CDC.

A new lifeguard station (named Griff's Guard
Station) is designed to help guards change
position and stay alert.

Statistics such as these have made the aquatic manager as attuned as any recreational professional to safety issues. At the same time, no sub-field of recreation management receives such a deluge of changing advice, regulation and alerts that the aquatic manager does.

Therefore, this article will focus on five hot issues in aquatic safety—both emerging safety trends and long-standing problem areas that have concrete solutions.

It will come as little surprise that the lifeguard is at the center of much of this discussion, as he or she is the frontline of defense against catastrophic water injury or drowning.

Open water areas, lakes and beachfronts pose the unique problems of an uncontrolled environment. And facility and maintenance issues, while often routine, are critically important to maintaining a safe and fun place for aquatic activity.


Once a peaceful and easygoing summer job, lifeguarding has come under scrutiny down to the smallest detail. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the vigilance of airport security screeners came into question. Security screeners work for relatively low wages in an often monotonous job that strains the very limits of attention spans. So in the wake of the attacks, it is not altogether surprising that federal transportation officials began to question whether security screeners were actually alert when dangerous items appeared on their X-ray machines.

This job is not dissimilar to lifeguarding. While lifeguarding is in some ways intrinsically more active than other security professions, it also has one bad habit that almost no other security force has.

"It is the only surveillance and security profession in America that promotes sitting down," says Tom Griffiths, director of aquatics and safety officer for athletics at Penn State University.

The lifeguard chair runs counter to the accepted wisdom of these other professions. Griffiths refers to the Seinfeld episode in which character George Costanza provides a security guard with a chair, causing the security guard to fall asleep and miss a theft.

Perhaps one of the first questions an aquatic manager might want ask him or herself is this: Are my lifeguards really paying attention?

The answer in many cases is: not as much as they should be.

Griffiths says in many of his surveys of lifeguards, they reported their own struggle to stay alert and follow proper scanning procedures.

The constant pressures of vigilance
and accountability are high for
lifeguards and aquatic managers.

Griffiths based his research on the surveys as well as governmental studies on vigilance-testing jobs such as wartime radar operators. The accumulated physiological and psychological research showed that task vigilance declines greatly after 15 minutes, he says.

Griffiths' research has lead to his video called the "Five-Minute Scanning Strategy."

"The basic idea is that every five minutes the lifeguard should make a significant change in their scanning posture, from sitting to standing, or standing to strolling," Griffiths says.

By making changes in their posture, as well as their scanning strategy (for example, instead of scanning the pool clockwise, scan counterclockwise), lifeguards can greatly increase their level of alertness. This change is measured, in part, by increases in respiratory rate.

Based on Griffiths' work, a lifeguard station (named Griff's Guard Station) has been developed to be more amenable to changing postures. Much lower than traditional "high-chair" style lifeguard chairs, the station resembles a high-railed, one-person bleacher, allowing for sitting, standing in the station and easy movement in and out of the station. The station may also reduce the incidence of slip and fall injuries to lifeguards associated with the traditional lifeguard chair.

Griffiths says the five-minute scanning strategy can and should be adapted to the facility where it is used. He notes that some smaller aquatic facilities may find some of the guidelines difficult to follow and maintain.

"I encourage it being adapted to what best suits the needs of a particular facility," he says. "The key thing is you don't want to have your lifeguard just sitting in the chair, for 20 minutes, half an hour or 45 minutes getting drowsy."