Supplement Feature - October 2021
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Risky Business

An Introduction to Waterpark Safety & Risk Management

By Dave Ramont


In 2019, 2.25 million people visited the Typhoon Lagoon aquatic park in Orlando, Fla., giving it the distinction of drawing the most visitors that year of any waterpark in the United States. Now consider that there are more than 1,000 waterparks across the country-indoor and outdoor-and you realize that tens of millions of people visit these parks each year. Therefore, waterpark owners and operators must be vigilant to reduce the risk of injuries at their facilities-and the lawsuits that can follow. Waterparks pose a unique set of risks, even though most of the water is shallower than three feet, and operators must ensure that their park is properly maintained and adequately staffed, and that staff members are following applicable regulations and guidelines, which are regulated through a patchwork of federal, state and local laws.

The Red Cross, citing U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates, tells us that more than 4,200 people a year visit emergency rooms to be treated for scrapes, concussions, broken limbs, spinal injuries and other such injuries suffered on public waterslides. Those numbers do not include other waterpark injuries or those who need lifeguard assistance without a hospital trip. In fact, waterslides pose the highest risk of injury at a waterpark, while wave pools have the highest risk of drowning. As part of their lifeguard training and certification offerings, the Red Cross now offers Aquatic Attraction Lifeguarding, designed for participants who wish to lifeguard at waterparks or pools with attractions. The course includes techniques for handling and removing people from water that is generally three feet deep or less, and first aid training emphasizing care for head, neck and spinal injuries.

Of course, waterslides-and other attractions-should be regularly inspected and maintained. Safe operation of waterslides is also critical, and a staff member should be placed at the entrance to these attractions to advise guests on the proper way to ride and to signal when guests are clear to go. Waterslides should have height and age restrictions posted, as well as step-by-step instructions on how to ride. A lifeguard should be stationed at the end of the ride to help guests who require assistance. Waterslides should be well-lit during evening operations and personal flotation devices should always be available.

It's important to be vigilant about cleaning and checking floors and decks for hazards to prevent slips, trips and falls. Ventilation and water systems must be monitored and maintained. Detailed record keeping is imperative, and any injury that does occur should be documented with an incident report, including any eyewitness information. Furthermore, the risk of injury can be reduced with detailed recordkeeping by identifying trends. Guests should sign liability waivers, which can also be a useful tool for warning guests of potential risks. Consider installing surveillance cameras, which can address safety concerns and document irresponsible guest behavior and rule violations.

Cody Butcher is a waterpark specialist with the Neuman Group, an Aquatic Destination Planning and Construction firm. His experience includes being responsible for operations and staff at a large indoor and outdoor aquatic facility, and time spent as director of aquatics and corporate director of waterpark maintenance for the Great Wolf Lodge family of waterparks. He said that waterparks typically perform daily, weekly and monthly inspections and maintenance of attractions and mechanical equipment. "A good preventive maintenance inspection process will minimize breakdowns, maintain satisfactory equipment conditions and improve reliability."

Butcher explained that waterparks are made up of several complex systems that require consistent inspections and upkeep, but each park will have its own unique procedures. "These inspections will help to identify maintenance actions and equipment and incorporate a maintenance program that results in the greatest benefit within the available budget." He listed some categories to consider with a maintenance plan: routine (things you do on a routine or daily basis); preventive maintenance; seasonal maintenance; capital replacement; total rehabilitation; and new attraction.

The maintenance plan, according to Butcher, will depend on many factors, including the age of the facility; type and size of equipment; seasonal vs. year-round park; indoor versus outdoor; qualifications of staff; and organizational needs. He confirmed that inspections and recordkeeping can play a very important role in managing the overall operations of a successful waterpark, and added that most codes allow the operator to develop their own check sheets as long as they contain the minimum required information. "All operators should consult with the authority having jurisdiction if they have questions on what records are required to comply with local codes."

"Some routine inspections can be handled in-house by consulting the Operations and Maintenance manuals", Butcher continued, "but there are many inspections that will require specialized personnel or equipment." He said that there are multiple codes that would apply, and these consultants and subject-matter experts will help ensure the facility will comply with federal, state and local regulations. "Outside inspections can alert the operator to situations they might not be aware of or updates to codes and standard operating procedures."

"Equally necessary is the quality of training the staff receives on the proper and safe operation of the attractions," Butcher said. Before any team member is asked to operate any attraction, they must undergo training in its proper operations, which must include protocols for normal ride operations, malfunctions that could occur, customer concerns and what emergency actions to take when an injury occurs.