Feature Article - April 2007
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Risky Business

Critical Safety Issues for Aquatic Facilities

By Joseph Ryan

Swim at your own risk?

Many aquatic facilities that aren't staffed with lifeguards, such as hotel swimming pools, often pin up big signs that read "Swim at Your Own Risk" or "No Lifeguard on Duty."

But is this the best way to protect patrons and the facility? Is there a better solution?

"It may satisfy the letter of the law, but not the spirit," said Randy Mendioroz, a principal with Aquatic Design Group. "Anytime you have a place opened to the public, ideally there is someone who should be supervising the pool."

Besides, those warning signs might not offer as much legal protection as facility owners think. Tom Ebro, an expert for plaintiffs in pool liability cases and founder of Aquatic Risk Management Consultants, said that regardless of the law, attorneys can argue that pool managers did not offer enough protection against a known danger. He said pool owners who don't hire lifeguards can be seen by juries as just "hiding behind the sign."

"(The signs) seem to put parents on notice," he said. "But average people cannot be counted on to detect a problem. Most drowning distress stages are not noticed."

If hotels and other aquatic facilities cannot afford the resources to hire lifeguards, experts suggest other measures that may increase safety at a moderate cost.

Mendioroz said that a differently worded sign, at least, may offer more protection.

He suggests signs that remind patrons to keep an eye on children and beware that there is no pool supervision.

Tom Griffiths, aquatics director for Penn State and founder of Aquatic Safety Research Group, recommends that an unsupervised pool's depth should be limited to no more than 5 feet.

"Children can still drown in 5 feet of water," he acknowledged. "But at least a non-swimming adult can still rescue a child in 5 feet of water."

Ebro recommends giving a staff member the duty of "rule enforcer" to keep an eye on the pool and make sure children are supervised and parents are aware of the rules. This should reduce the chance of drowning and injuries while at the same time increasing the chance an adult will notice a drowning victim in the first critical few minutes, he said.

"If you do that, it seems to me it would be a very hard case to prosecute," he said.

Bottom line, Ebro said, "Do a better job than just a little sign in the corner."