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

Starting blocks

Perhaps one of the biggest issues in competition aquatic facilities stems from the movement to remove starting blocks from the shallow end.

Several national organizations and many high-school interscholastic associations at the state level have greatly increased the minimum depth for starts from diving blocks.

Alison Osinski is an aquatics consultant specializing in risk management and aquatic facility design, as well as other areas of the aquatics industry. Osinski says the debate began when swimming starts changed from a flat dive to more of a piking dive.

Osinski and other experts now recommend that diving not be allowed in water with less than a nine-foot depth. Other organizations have developed a five-foot standard. Osinski says she recommends the nine-foot standard (or in-water starts) because at that depth spinal injuries are nearly impossible.

Open-water recreation poses its own set of
safety challenges.

However, some swimming coaches still support shallow-water, shallow-dive standards and expressed concern that the new standards will decrease swimmer's diving ability.

"It is true that injuries at five feet are unlikely, but you have to look at how catastrophic those injuries are when they do occur," Osinski says. "You're not talking about someone breaking their leg, you're talking about quadriplegia."

In many older pools, workers can simply switch the starting blocks to the deep end, which may not be deep enough for diving boards in any event. However, costs can increase if timing systems, diving boards or other modifications outside the pool need to be changed or upgraded along with moving the blocks.

Osinski says if facility managers don't follow her strict nine-foot recommendation, they should at least take the matter seriously.

"You need to look at the issue for your own facilities, go out and do the research, and don't just depend on what another group is doing," she says. "You might, for instance, decide to have a single starting block in a pool without nine feet, but have it out only with direct supervision to teach proper diving techniques."

Perception at sea

In the uncontrolled environments of the ocean and larger lakefronts, safety experts say stressing the simple concepts to patrons is as important as anything else. For example, Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, Calif., has been running Project Wipeout since the early 1990s, after a brief discontinuation of the original program that began in the 1970s.

Project Wipeout is a community health outreach program that works to prevent the catastrophic injuries associated with surfing as well as other beach safety issues. Kris Okamoto, a registered nurse at Hoag who is also the coordinator of Project Wipeout, says her hospital is beginning to see lower-leg injuries associated with the newer sport of skimboarding. Skimboarders, in a sense, surf in reverse in that they start on the wet sand, following the pull of the receding waves, before heading back sand-ward toward the beach.

Okamoto says education is particularly important in the oceanfront environment because people are both very drawn to the ocean and have difficulty perceiving its dangers.

"It might sound ridiculous, but one thing we find ourselves continually stressing is don't go out in the ocean if you don't know how to swim well," Okamoto says.


Project Wipeout advises people not to go into the surf if they can't maintain an overhead stroke for 15 minutes.

Diving issues are particularly important to teach because of perception issues. Operation Wipeout advises people never to run into the beach and dive into the water or to jump from a pier or jetty. In both cases, serious injury can result when water appears deeper than it actually is.

Another common problem is the deceptively benign appearance of sand. Californians partying on the beach often attempt to put fires out by covering them with sand, but actually create an oven-like pocket of fire, invisible to beachgoers. Child burns have become all too common from this problem, and California lifeguards are routinely given first-responder burn training.

Perhaps the most subtle safety issue is the allure of the surf zone. Drawn by the display of the breaking waves, people can be carried away by even relatively small amounts of surf spray.

"I've seen very powerful men knocked off their feet in what doesn't look like that much water," Okamoto says.