Feature Article - January 2005
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Potentially Dangerous When Wet

Aquatic risk management red flags

By Stacy St. Clair


Imagine a new playground opens in your community.

It has a top-rate slide that the whole town seems to enjoy using. Once you get there, however, you see the playground has been built on hard ground without enough padding and safety surfacing. Falling from the apparatus could guarantee a cracked skull or worse.

You inspect the slide and notice there are no toe enclosures on the ladder. It's obvious a child's foot could slip right through the rungs.

The handrails are also too large for children to fully wrap their hands around. They won't have a secure grip as they climb the 10-foot ladder.

Would you let your child play on the slide? Probably not. It's not safe.

Yet the aquatics industry regularly installs diving boards with the same unsafe conditions. They're mounted on concrete slabs, without toe enclosures and handrails much too large for a child to completely grasp.

If they were playground slides, most diving boards would violate local and national standards. There would probably be a community uproar, as well.

"There's a disparity between what's permitted at playgrounds and what's permitted at pools," aquatic expert Jason Mart says. "The industry has to do something to change this."

There's more than just a moral obligation to keep patrons safe. There's also an important financial aspect to providing user-friendly pool ladders.

Injuries stemming from ladder falls have resulted in multimillion-dollar lawsuits. By providing safe climbs, aquatic managers reduce the risk of both injury and liability.

Until the industry makes ladders with smaller handrails and toe enclosures standard, proactive pools are installing padding under their diving boards to cushion falls. The pads, which cost between $1,000 and $5,000, increase in thickness depending on the ladder's height. The thickness also meets the Consumer Product Safety Commission's guidelines for falls.

The pads are slip-resistant to minimize injuries around the board, as well. They are waterproof, so aquatic managers don't have to worry about mold or mildew.

Safety-conscious pool managers also have begun installing padding around the entire deck area. The move protects patrons—especially overexcited children who forget the rules and run around the deck—from slipping and falling.

It may not be the industry's most important risk-management issue, but pool padding is gaining more interest. It's much-deserved attention, too, given the padding's ability to protect patrons and reduce liability issues.

"Drowning is always going to be the No. 1 risk management issue," Mart says. "But there are other areas that need to be considered, as well."


Everyone knows the best defense against drowning is good lifeguards. But we sometimes forget just how valuable these tanned pool watchers are.

Swimmers are less likely to drown in facilities that employ lifeguards. In 1998, for example, fewer than 100 people drowned in guarded pools and oceans. The number represents a mere 2.5 percent of the almost 4,000 fatal drownings that occur each year.

On guarded beaches, the United States Lifeguarding Association estimates the chance of drowning is one in 18 million. Horseplay and reckless swimming is also greatly diminished.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has begun touting the importance of lifeguards as more communities and recreation managers have questioned whether guards are worth the cost and legal liability. The answer, according to the CDC and Red Cross, is an unequivocal yes.

"When weighing the cost and legal implications of intervention to prevent drowning," a recent CDC reports says, "decision makers should never lose sight of the enormous importance of protecting people from harm and preventing tragedy."