Feature Article - January 2015
Find a printable version here

Certifiably Safer

Why & How Certification Improves Safety

By Kelli Ra Anderson

It's official. Studies now confirm what many in the recreation industry suspected or already knew. There is a definitive link between certification and improved safety in recreation facilities according to reports in the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC), introduced by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) this year.

The Code, designed to provide a single-source guideline for aquatic operations and safety, cited several studies that reported significantly higher rates of OSHA violations, pool closures and injury across the nation by those operating a pool without proper training and certification.

"The MAHC Annex, which provides the Code's scientific justification, provides the references that demonstrate health code violations are common," said Thomas Lachocki, chief executive officer of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). "But they are reduced when operators are trained to this standard."

One of the Code's recommendations? Get certified.

With safety easily ranked the number-one priority in the recreation industry, it only makes sense to ensure staff at all levels, for all kinds of jobs (not just in aquatics), have the kind of training, background and continuing knowledge to keep equipment, patrons and employees free from harm. But who really needs to be certified? And by what organization? How can you know if a personal trainer, pool operator, lifeguard or even backhoe driver is adequately equipped to do their job well and keep everyone safe in the process?

The trouble is, with every state having their own requirements, and few standards, everyone has a different answer. Top managers of award-winning facilities and professionals in their field, however, share some of their insights that help shed a little light on a complicated issue.

Is It Really Necessary?

Obviously, if a state mandates certain certifications for certain jobs, there is at least a baseline from which to start evaluating a facility's overall safety compliance and readiness. But when lives are at stake, managers need to go above and beyond the status quo, as in the case of climbing wall instruction, to ensure their instructors are not only trained in commonly accepted standards in the industry, but to know how to communicate effectively with patrons. Higher standards beyond just the baseline are in order.

"Climbing is inherently dangerous," said Daniel Jeanette, member services coordinator with the Climbing Wall Association Inc. (CWA). "From the manager's standpoint, the climbing wall instructor is often at the front lines of a system designed to manage risk within the facility. The instructor needs to be trained appropriately on how to convey those risks to the customer along with certain technical knowledge, and it is the awareness of risk and the ability to convey it appropriately to customers that the Climbing Wall Instructor certification seeks to elevate to a higher standard."

When lives are at stake, managers need to go above and beyond the status quo to ensure their instructors are not only trained in commonly accepted standards in the industry, but to know how to communicate effectively with patrons.

More than just hoping someone knows their job, good certification assures a manager that they do. "The district and our participants benefit from our staff being trained and/or certified because this way we know that the staff is educated and properly trained," said Jim Reuter, executive director of the Carol Stream Park District in Illinois and a 2014 award winner with the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA). "It's extremely important to know that our fitness staff know how to instruct others in the proper techniques so that no one gets hurt."

Certification is also important as a standard of professionalism, a growing demand in the recreation industry. "Employers hiring professionally are beginning to seek out those with certification because of the value they bring to their agency," said Julie Boland, director of membership with the NRPA, about to celebrate their 50th anniversary. "It is recognized that our programs are top certification in the field and individuals bring that value to their communities to demonstrate their knowledge with professional certification."

Bottom line, however, accredited certification can mean the difference between life and death. Brad Anderson, facility program supervisor of aquatics in the city of Englewood, Colo., and director of Anderson Aquatics, has certainly seen plenty of seasoned candidates come through his CPO certification program woefully ignorant of key concepts.

"Water chemistry is one of the biggest 'a-ha' moments," Anderson said about the most significant change he sees in their understanding about their job. But an even greater concern is how many facilities put their pools in the hands of part-time teenagers each summer. "We tend to turn over our water chemical readings to 15- and 16-year-olds and we don't train them. They have no idea what they're reading or the ramifications if the pH is off.

"It's not just about killing bugs, either, but learning about clarity of water. If the water chemistry is off, it leads to cloudy water and we've all heard the reports of bodies not found for two days at the bottom of a pool. If you can't see the bottom, you also can't see the drains—there's a reason for the Virginia Graeme Baker (VGB) law—to make sure drains are secure at all times. We have to see those main drains or something bad can happen."