Supplement Feature - February 2011
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The Right Safeguards

Protecting Pool Patrons, Reducing Risk

By Wynn St. Clair


Safety Personnel

As the public's recreation spending shrinks, aquatic centers may face smaller revenues. Some facilities—in particular, health clubs and hotels—have reduced expenses by cutting lifeguards. While managers may see it as a painful necessity, statistics show it may be detrimental to both patrons' and the facilities' overall health.

According to the CDC, U.S. lifeguards rescue more than 100,000 people from drowning annually. In addition, for every rescue, an effective lifeguard makes scores of preventive actions such as warning individuals away from dangerous areas and suggesting that poor swimmers stay in shallow waters.

Without question, professional lifeguards have had a major impact on drowning prevention in the United States. The number of Americans participating in water recreation has grown tremendously in the past century, but the annual incidence of drowning has declined nationally from about 6,300 people in 1981 to about 3,400 in 2007, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Nevertheless, despite the advances in rescue techniques and the decline in drowning rates in the United States, drowning remains a leading cause of unintentional injury death, especially among children and youth.

"If the incidence of drowning is to be reduced further, greater attention to prevention, including the staffing and training of lifeguards, is essential," according to "Lifeguard Effectiveness: A Report of the Working Group," a publication of the National Center for Injury Prevention and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reliance on Compliance

In many cases, pool safety is more than just a moral responsibility, it's a legal requirement. The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Act required all public pools in the United States to meet a December 2008 deadline for outfitting drains with covers designed to prevent entrapment.

Named for former Secretary of State James Baker's granddaughter, who died at age 7 when suction from a hot tub drain held her underwater, the law aims to address a wholly preventable tragedy. The mandate, which received bipartisan support, requires commercial public pools and spas to take relatively simple measures to prevent drain entrapment from occurring.

An estimated 94 entrapment cases took place between 1999 and 2009, according to the most recent figures from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Of those incidents, 12 resulted in death. However, not all entrapment incidents get reported as such, so experts believe the number is much higher than statistics indicate.

"Kids have died in their parent's arms...kids have been stuck in a drain in the shallow part of the pool," said Paul Pennington, chairman of the Pool Safety Council, an advocacy group. "After an incident, the parents and public pool owners always say they didn't know anything about this issue."