Feature Article - April 2006
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Safe Swimming

Managing risk at aquatic facilities

By Kyle Ryan

The first line of defense

Popular culture has had a surprising effect on people's conceptions of lifeguards. No one mistakes a show like Baywatch for reality, but movies and TV have created this image of muscular, attractive people who typically do everything but pay attention to their jobs. In reality, a lifeguard many times is a bored teenager watching people swim laps and wondering if it'd make any difference if he left.

It would, and it does.

"The best, most desirable way to ensure that there's going to be the best possible protection afforded in a pool setting is the inclusion of a lifeguard within a facility," Ebro says. "You can prove it over and over."

But that bored teenager? He's not the best person for the job. He shouldn't be zoning out, falling asleep, or otherwise distracted from the very real threats that occur in front of his eyes. Although the average lifeguard age is 17, according to Dworkin, they are often younger, and that's problematic.

"The responsibilities the 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids have is no different from a firefighter's, police and EMS personnel," Dworkin says. "They actually have more responsibility because the firefighter and EMT sits and waits for the alarm to go off, and then they respond. The lifeguard doesn't have that luxury. They have to sit and stand to identify the incident before it occurs and hopefully head it off."

Early last year, the Department of Labor restricted the use of 15-year-old lifeguards, mostly in the amount of hours they can work and where they can work. No one under the age of 15 is permitted to be a lifeguard, but Osinski thinks that 15 is still too young.

"Historically we've had lifeguards at a fairly young age, and I don't think that's a good thing," she says. "You're going to get inexperienced or very young individuals who may not have the maturity or the strength or the skill to do the job. So my recommendation is hire adults, pay them appropriately and provide adequate training."

She concedes, though, that young adults can be a part of a lifeguarding staff that's large and experienced and can supervise young staff members. Dworkin doesn't see it so much as an age issue as a skills problem.

"From our experience, maturity hasn't been the factor—it's been the skills ability," he says. "I mean, you can have a 25-year-old lifeguard who may have barely passed the course and can barely swim themselves, and they've been put into a situation where they're supposed to be able to perform rescues, and they can't. It comes back onto the manager to establish a skills-testing program upon employment."

Lifeguard certifications can be misleading, as the various training methods (Red Cross, YMCA, Starguard, Ellis And Associates, etc.) use different curricula. Red Cross advises lifeguards to get the victims to land as quickly as possible. YMCA suggests in-water activity. Both of the organizations, along with the U.S. Life Saving Association, currently are working on new, universal standards, but things remain complicated now. Even worse, ambitious scam artists easily can forge lifeguard certifications.

"Over the past several years, there have been numerous instances where lifeguards have shown up with forged lifeguard credentials," says Will Evans, director of safety information for Markel Insurance Company. "These credentials were questioned only when the lifeguard's performance and skills were tested and found to be inadequate. If the organization had not performed these skills tests, guess when they would have been tested?"

In the company's aquatics risk-management guide, Markel recommends facility managers check certification records, conduct physical and vision screenings of new lifeguards, as well as offer a hepatitis-B vaccination. With new lifeguards that's when their training should begin, not end. They need site-specific training so they can understand the facility's unique requirements. Those depend on what type of a facility it is—what works at one may not work at another. Once a manager establishes that foundation in a new lifeguard, it needs to be maintained with ongoing training. All aquatics experts agree—vehemently so—that continuing education is critical.

"People forget things," Osinski says. "If you don't drill on this constantly, you forget how to do it…This is something you want them thinking of regularly. You want to make sure they have the capabilities to do the job."

In Markel's guide (available at www.aquaticsafetygroup.com/documents/ Markel_Aquatic_RiskMgmt_Guide.pdf), the company recommends a number of in-service training options, from bag-valve mask and oxygen therapy to victim-retrieval practice to guarding the disabled. The seemingly endless possibilities ensure enough variety to keep staff members interested in new material.