Feature Article - April 2007
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Risky Business

Critical Safety Issues for Aquatic Facilities

By Joseph Ryan


Of all the situations where individuals can get hurt or injured at public pool facilities, entrapment and suction drowning are perhaps the easiest to fix. Yet experts and industry leaders are still having trouble getting the word out—or at least getting pool owners to take action—on the mechanical remedies that can ensure swimmers don't get trapped by the pool's suction devices and drown.

To be sure, the danger is real. Between 1990 and 2004, at least 130 cases of body, hair and clothing entrapment have been documented by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), with 27 resulting in the drowning deaths of the victims. At least 33 of the incidents occurred at public facilities, but the location of 45 other occurrences was not documented by the CDC.

Entrapment cases run the age range from infants to 89-year-olds, but a clear majority of victims are children and teenagers. Of 74 entrapment cases involving body parts like arms and legs, 77 percent were children under the age of 15. Many of those cases involved the kids playing with the drain.

When it comes to hair entrapment, cited in 43 incidents between 1999 and 2004, 92.5 percent of the victims were under the age of 15. Most of them were girls with long, fine hair who happened to be under water with their head near a suction point.

Generally, body entrapment occurs when the whole body or a limb gets stuck on a drain gate, preventing the person from escaping before they succumb to drowning. With hair entrapment, the CDC says, entangling of the hair in the drain causes drowning, not necessarily the powerful suction.

Solutions for these problems have been on the market for a quarter-century, but the deaths keep tallying up at the CDC.

Dome-shaped drain covers, on the market since 1982, can prevent the whole drain from being covered by the victim. A missing or broken drain cover makes entrapment much more likely.

"They are like ticking time bombs," said Ebro of Aquatic Risk Management.

Also since 1982, covers with smaller holes have been available. These limit suction rates, preventing hair from being sucked into a drain.

Suction devices are some of the most regulated aspects of pools across the country, but laws vary from state to state and city to city. However, there is an endless supply of safety recommendations.

For example, the National Electrical Code now requires an emergency shutoff switch near public hot tubs and spas. The CDC and the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals (APSP) recommend the special drain covers, dual drainage systems and devices that automatically shut off suction if pressure spikes, releasing the victim.

"The answer lies in layers of protection," Ebro noted.

Clearly the current problem with entrapment cases is coming from older pools and spas built before these standards became the norm. But that doesn't morally or sometimes even legally excuse the managers of those facilities from making the necessary and often simple upgrades.

Under new rules adopted in 2005, the CDC recommends that older pools with only one grate—the most dangerous kind—upgrade to at least two outlets per pump and install a suction release system, known as a safety vacuum release system, or SVRS.

If those remedies are not practical, the CDC recommends a minimum of safety drain covers, a power cutoff safety mechanism and limited suction through the drain of 1.5 feet per second.

Even if not mandated by local laws, multiple drains and shut-off systems are critical in wade pools, where it will be more common for children to sit and step on drain covers.

"Most owners don't want to do this," said Randy Mendioroz, a principal with Aquatic Design Group. "But I don't think they have a choice. It is that serious of an issue."