Feature Article - April 2006
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Safe Swimming

Managing risk at aquatic facilities

By Kyle Ryan

Preventing accidents

Generally speaking, the aquatics industry has made significant progress over the years in the prevention of shallow-water diving—but it still happens. Spinal injuries also occur in diving wells, where the diving area isn't big enough (victims strike the slope of the pool bottom instead of the deep water), and when horseplay causes someone to fall into shallow water. There are also spinal injuries that occur when people jumping in water land on someone. Obviously it's important to establish rules against diving, but they aren't enough by themselves.

"Just saying 'don't dive' is like saying 'don't spit on the carpet,'" Ebro says. "If you were told that your spit somehow chemically combining with the carpet causes an explosion, you'd probably not spit. But if nobody's looking, you'd probably spit. The same with diving: Some people feel there's really no consequence there."

Education plays a big role here, as well as the establishment of anti-diving rules and, more importantly, enforcing those rules. Places that have diving blocks should cover them or make them otherwise unusable when they're not in use. However, no matter how much facility operators warn people against diving in shallow water, no matter how big and obnoxious the signs prohibiting it are, some of the less intelligent swimmers will do it anyway.

"I think the signage and just having lifeguards attentive is about all you can do," Evans says. "And then having them prepared to respond because it's such a quick, unpredicted action."

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs

Do signs—ones that list rules or say "No Diving," etc.—even work? Griffiths has done extensive research on their effectiveness, and he's concluded that they do work when done correctly. According to him, signs have between three and five seconds to convey their message. The more text they use, the less effective they are. That's a delicate balance to make in the case of diving: How do you warn against the sometimes tragic consequences of diving without using so much text that people ignore the sign altogether? The answer isn't clear-cut, but no one argues against using signs.

"Why take a chance?" Ebro says. "Signage is important; effective signage is more important. A reduction in signage is a matter of depriving that information a person needs in order to make an objective decision."

In another respect, not having signs increases a facility's liability and makes it easier to argue negligence in court. The combination of effective signage and attentive lifeguards creates a potent weapon against aquatic accidents. Just having one or the other—no lifeguards with a "swim at your own risk" sign or lifeguards, but no signs—opens the door for accidents and possible litigation.