Feature Article - April 2006
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Safe Swimming

Managing risk at aquatic facilities

By Kyle Ryan

The big threat

The statistics for drowning remain staggering. According to the National Safety Council, it was the fourth leading cause of unintentional death for people ages 1 to 77 in 2001 (second leading for ages 1 to 4, 6 to 18 and 20). That year saw 4,406 drownings, and for each of those, according to Dworkin's research, there were six to 10 near-drowning incidents that caused permanent neurological impairment. Markel's guide listed a statistic from The National Safe Kids Campaign that showed roughly 5,000 kids are hospitalized every year for drowning incidents. Their health-care costs are, of course, outrageous.

It's not really getting better, either. Dworkin has 29 concurrent drowning or near-drowning cases on his plate right now. What's worse than that? Many of them involve "very young kids" who were out of sight for less than five minutes. Drowning incidents remain more or less predictably constant, though Dworkin says drownings at public facilities have decreased. They have increased at private facilities like home pools. Overall, the numbers of incidents seem to rise with increasing aquatics usage.

"I think we have more participation," Ebro says. "We have made tremendous strides in providing protection, but because that's a proportional kind of increase, we continue to have proportional injury statistics."

Evans' company works with many summer camps and youth programs, and he's seen a rise in the percentage of children who are beginning swimmers or non-swimmers. That diversity of users, of course, increases risk because of their lack of experience. To address the drowning threat, many facilities have simply opted for shallow-water pools or zero-depth splash play areas, which have a significantly lower drowning risk.

Causes and types of drownings

In its aquatics risk-management guide, Markel Insurance listed three primary causes of drowning: unsafe conditions (broken equipment, cloudy water, obstructed views, etc.), unsafe acts (inadequate supervision, shallow-water diving, lack of rescue equipment, etc.) and errors in judgment (showing off, fatigue, distraction, etc.). Regardless of how ill-conceived a person's actions or behavior are, ultimate responsibility for the consequences falls on the facility's management.

Drownings themselves fall into two categories: active and passive. In the former, the victim is conscious as it happens and struggles against it. In the latter, people simply disappear—there's no struggle or cry for help. That can happen for a variety of reasons, from blackout to heart attack or a blow to the head. As Dworkin's swollen caseload shows, most drownings go unperceived, regardless of their active or passive nature.

"That surface struggle that most people would recognize as drowning is very brief," Osinski says. "But you still have a lot of time once that person submerges to rescue them before they're a fatality."

Although it sounds insensitive, drowning victims usually fall into two categories: floaters or sinkers. Children, because of they weigh less and have lighter bone structure, typically float when they drown. That's a general rule, but obviously it varies according to the child's age. Adults typically sink when they drown.

"We expect to find teenagers and adults on the bottom, and we expect to see children floating on the surface," Ebro says. "It depends on what your physiology is."