Feature Article - February 2022
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Safe In (and Out of) the Water

Aquatic Facility Safety From Design Through Operation

By Dave Ramont


First, the good news: The CDC reports that drowning deaths in children ages 0 to 17 declined 38% from 1999 to 2019. But they also tell us that in the United States there are still nearly 4,000 unintentional drowning deaths annually. More children ages 1 to 4 die from drowning than any other cause of death except birth defects, and for children ages 1 to 14, drowning is the second leading cause of death after motor vehicle crashes. And for every child who dies from drowning, another eight receive emergency department care for non-fatal drowning, which can result in long-term health problems.

While drowning prevention is the main safety concern for pool operators, they also have other considerations including slip & fall injuries, pool ride and amenity safety, maintaining good water and air quality and keeping support areas safe.

Design for Safety

Aquatic Design Group (ADG) is a planning, design and consulting firm in the aquatics industry, and their team suggested some things to be considered in the design phase with regard to safety concerns. "Non-slip surfaces and proper drainage are crucial design elements for use in a consistently wet environment," said ADG President Dennis Berkshire. "Avoiding standing water to prevent mold, mildew and biofilm growth that can contaminate the pool water is important."

"In pool design, recreational pools and shallow water for lap pools are placed near locker room exits or the entry area of the pool," said Michelle Gable, principal at ADG, pointing out that this can help a weak swimmer avoid deep water and it's less intimidating upon entering the facility. "Outside lanes in a lap pool are designed to be wider than inside lanes due to … the potential for swimmers to accidentally intersect with rail goods or the pool walls," she added. "Underwater camera and deck camera systems are increasingly popular elements woven into aquatic facility design to support the efforts of lifeguards. Their use can increase safety, reduce staffing and decrease annual operating costs."

"The finishes of walls, lockers, sinks, countertops and other touch points should be non-abrasive so as not to injure patrons who may rub up against them and to allow them to be more easily cleaned," said ADG CEO Justin Caron. He also explained that when designing a natatorium, strategic HVAC and dehumidification systems and supplemental or secondary disinfection equipment improve both air and water quality, proving especially important in a COVID-19 world.

"Automation is becoming more common and allows both air handling systems and water quality systems to ramp up and down as needed to react to ever-changing situations instantly," Caron added. "Variable speed control circulation pumps allow circulation systems to be ramped up during high-load conditions and slowed down in off-peak conditions."

When designing a sprayground, Gable said that care is taken to ensure toddlers don't wander into the deep end of a nearby pool or traffic in a parking lot. "The use of strategic sprayground placement and/or fencing makes spraygrounds much safer for the ever-curious and fast-moving toddler. Safety surfacing to help with fall attenuation and minimize injuries has become an increasingly popular design element."

Caron added that the layout of the sprayground should create different age-appropriate zones to help provide a safer experience for all users without compromising fun or exploration.

Shawn DeRosa is the founder of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting, an education and training company specializing in aquatic safety and risk management, and he believes many items in the planning-and-design phase can help mitigate safety issues during operations. He mentioned natatorium windows as one concern, and explained how architects examine the sun's path to attempt to align windows to minimize glare, as well as recommending window glazing or shades, but despite their best efforts, windows can still cause significant glare on the water surface. "Thus, even if recommendations for lifeguard stations were made pre-construction, it would be wise to conduct zone validation testing after water is in the pool and well before the facility opens for use.

"Other items that can be addressed in the design phase relating to safety include maintaining sufficient deck space to allow for traffic flow and emergency extrication from the water; proper depth markings and 'No Diving' tiles; emergency egress; location of chemical storage; ventilation of chemical storage areas; and means of securing the facility when closed to prevent unauthorized access," said DeRosa.