Feature Article - April 2006
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Safe Swimming

Managing risk at aquatic facilities

By Kyle Ryan

If there's one thing the world of aquatics has an endless supply of, it's horror stories. It's not surprising, considering the statistics: There were 99,961 aquatic injuries in 2001, according to the National Safety Council. They range from the usual bruises and scrapes to horrific accidents that cause death or serious injury.

Talking to Dr. Alison Osinski of Aquatic Consulting Services is enough to drive the skittish away from aquatics forever. There was the little boy who had his colon sucked out by a home spa. The man who was underwater in a hotel pool for 18 minutes before anyone found him—or a little boy who spent two days at the bottom of a home pool. They sound unbelievable, but Osinski and numerous consultants who do similar work have a stockpile of these terrible stories, each of them more unnerving than the previous one.

People love water recreation, but that affection sometimes can lead to drowning, spinal injuries, suction entrapment, illness from waterborne disease, electrocution and a host of other problems. The good news, though, is that most events aren't catastrophic—but they still occur. However, with the right preparation, many accidents and injuries can be avoided or at least minimized.

A facility's risk depends largely on what type of facility it is. A splash play area doesn't have the same needs as a local recreational pool, which differs from the nearby waterpark, which needs something else than the beachfront a short distance away. Sometimes, the threats aren't immediately apparent, particularly at waterparks and recreational areas.

"What looks good on blueprint takes a while for the incidents to develop," says Tom Ebro, president of Tom Ebro Water Safety Consultants. "It takes kind of an outcry and a series of these kinds of incidents to occur before the resistance is overcome."

Gerald Dworkin of Lifesaving Resources, an aquatic consulting company, breaks it down to an acronym: HRD. H stands for hazard, meaning a physical object at a facility. R stands for risk, such as the activities that place people at a higher risk. Combining H and R results in D, danger, which managers need to mitigate.

"The classic example is shallow water would be a hazard," Dworkin says. "A head-first entry into the water would be a risk. If you combine that risk and the hazard, namely diving into shallow water, that's a danger."

With all of the inherent concerns involved with aquatics, it's enough to make facility managers wish for a simple pool. But it's possible to manage risk. Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., director of aquatics and safety for Penn State University and creator of the Five Minute Scanning Strategy for lifeguards, says a lot of it comes down to a handful of issues.

"There's three big things you want to protect against: no diving into shallow water, parents please watch your children, and no prolonged breath-holding or underwater swimming," he says. "If you cover those three bases, you've eliminated the vast majority of your risks."

Of course, others still lurk out there, but they aren't that mysterious. What's that expression about the devil you know?