Feature Article - September 2006
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Refreshing Strategies

Cool Tips for Waterparks and Splash Play Areas

By Stacy St. Clair



Preventing RWIs

Preventing recreational water illnesses (RWIs) may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of engaging patrons. But, really, is there anything less-inviting than an aquatic facility that causes gastrointestinal problems? Fortunately, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer a 12-step program to help your facility chart a course toward cleaner water.

1. LEAD YOUR STAFF.

Yes, every facility has its own pressing priorities. And, yes, it's hard to juggle those everyday demands.

However, all aquatic centers must make health a priority. The single greatest action you can take against water illness is to create a RWI protection plan. Be sure to back up your plan with resource investment and commitment. This will set the tone for the rest of the staff. Though an aggressive response after an outbreak is good, it's much more responsible (and cost-effective) to be proactive.

2. DEVELOP PARTNERSHIPS.

Build a communication bridge between your facility and the local health department. This is an excellent way to get information on other outbreaks occurring in your area. If, for example, you begin to hear about outbreaks at other pools, day-care centers and schools where your patrons attend, then take proactive measures and increase your vigilance to protect your facility. In the case of another local pool closing after an outbreak, work with health officials to educate the public—especially the swimmers who will be descending on your pool from the closed facility. Be sure to use the media, too, to help spread the message. Ask them to remind the public that no one should swim if they have diarrhea.

3. EDUCATION POOL STAFF.

In the war against RWIs, there's no greater weapon than education. Make sure your pool operator, at a minimum, has attended a training course on waterborne illness. It's also wise to integrate the "P-L-E-As" for Healthy Swimming into your staff training (see #4 below). Your employees should be as well versed on good hygiene methods as they are on CPR techniques and lifesaving skills. Empower your staff to inform parents of proper poolside hygiene. They should be able to explain in an informative, yet inoffensive manner, why behavior such as using picnic tables to change diapers is unacceptable. This may dictate putting an older, more confident lifeguard in charge of the kiddie area.

4. EDUCATION THE SWIMMERS AND PARENTS.

A proactive staff must educate the public on ways to prevent waterborne illness. The CDC recommends six public "P-L-E-As" for Protection to combat RWIs. First, the campaign asks bathers to please not swim if they have diarrhea. It also asks them to refrain from swallowing pool water. Other key elements include practicing good hygiene (showering before swimming), frequent diaper checks, taking children on regular trips to the restroom, changing diapers in the restroom not poolside, and washing children's rear ends thoroughly with soap and water before swimming.

5. MAINTAIN WATER QUALITY AND EQUIPMENT.

Keep your chemicals and chemical-feed equipment at optimal levels within state and local government regulations. It may sound painfully obvious, but poor pH control can compromise chlorine's effectiveness. The proper chlorine levels are your best chance at fighting an e-coli outbreak. In addition to frequent chlorine checks—at poolside—provide regular maintenance to your recirculation and fitness equipment.

6. EVALUATE AQUATIC FACILITY DESIGN.

When building a new facility, consult industry colleagues and health workers about how to best design the facility to prevent outbreaks. The kiddie pool, for example, should not share the same filtration system as other parts of the aquatic center. Increasing the water turnover rates in kiddie pools also may reduce the chances of a waterborne illness. This decision, of course, must be made in conjunction with regulators to prevent suction problems.

7. INSTITUTE DISINFECTION GUIDELINES.

It may not be required, but it's smart to have a written policy on how to respond to fecal accidents. Keep a written log of all fetal accidents, chlorine and pH level measurements and any major equipment repairs so you can respond better to any outbreaks or contamination. For detailed disinfection guidelines, go to: www.cdc.gov/healthyswimming/fecal_response.htm

8. EVALUATE HYGIENE FACILITIES.

In a recent CDC survey, a majority of parents claimed to change their children's diapers at poolside because the restrooms were unclean, poorly maintained and did not have an adequate diaper-changing area.

So stop and ask yourself a few questions. Does your aquatic center have adequate facilities? Are they close to the pool? Are they clean and well-stocked? Would you enter them barefoot? If you answered "no" to any of those questions, it's time to rethink your strategy. Better yet, ask your patrons the same questions. If they respond negatively to just one of the four, you've got some work to do. If your facility is large enough, consider hiring someone whose sole responsibility is maintaining the restrooms. You also may want to consider spending the money to renovate your diaper-changing stations. You also may contemplate building diaper-changing cabanas with running water and soap near the kiddie pool. It's a terrific way to cut down on the number of diaper changes performed on lounge chairs and tables. These moves admittedly require some extra capital. However, they may prove to be good investments if they prevent an even more costly temporary closure after an outbreak.

9. DEVELOP A RESTROOM BREAK POLICY.

Many aquatic facilities take a break every hour or so for chemical testing. This reassures patrons that the staff has the best intentions for their patrons' health and safety. You can take an even more proactive step toward reducing fecal accidents by referring to this period as the hourly "restroom break."

Have your staff inform parents that this is an optimal time to take their children to the restroom. If you implement this strategy, however, be sure that the facilities are clean and well-stocked with toilet paper and antibacterial soap to prevent the transmission of germs. Should parents inquire, tell them the restroom break not only cuts down on fecal accidents, it also reduces the amount of urine in the pool, which saves the disinfectant that should be killing germs.

10. CREATE A SPECIAL POLICY FOR LARGE GROUPS OF YOUNG CHILDREN.

If you allow large groups of small children—from a local day-care center—to use your facility, have a special policy in place to reduce that chances of waterborne illness. First, require the caretakers to undergo RWI training. They should be briefed fully on many of the components listed above. Make sure they know that, just like many day-care centers, your facility does not admit children with diarrhea.

11. POST AND DISTRIBUTE HEALTH INFORMATION.

Don't be afraid to post signage in a conspicuous area before pool entry. The CDC recommends signs that state:

  • Don't swim when you have diarrhea.
  • Don't swallow the water.
  • Take your kids to the restroom frequently.

You also should encourage swimmers to shower with soap and water before entering the pool. This helps reduce the outbreaks by removing the invisible fecal matter from the swimmers' bottoms. A quick rinse over a swimsuit with cold water, however, is not going to do much good. Consider having hot showers available to encourage swimmers to give themselves—and their children—a more thorough cleaning before entering the pool.

12. DEVELOP AN OUTBREAK/EMERGENCY RESPONSE PLAN.

No one wants a diarrheal outbreak to occur, but everyone should plan for one. Develop a policy to follow in case you begin getting calls from patrons or the health department launches an investigation. This plan should include a component for keeping the local media and government personnel in the loop.

You also should appoint a spokesperson to ensure there is one voice and one message coming from your facility. It also provides a clear contact person for government agencies, media members and the public to reach. Talk to colleagues who already have gone through a public health crisis. They may have tips on surviving the storm and suggestions on how to handle the media. Whatever you do, do not try to impede the health-department investigation. If your pool was the source of contamination, the investigation can provide insight as to how or why the illness was transmitted. This information leads to better illness prevention strategies that can help everyone. What's more, sometimes the investigation finds a source unrelated to your pool and exonerates your facility.