Aquatic Staff Training: Good Business Sense
Association Guest Column: National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF)
By Thomas M. Lachocki, Ph.D.
Substantial marketing and sales investments are made to attract customers. Retaining existing customers is far less expensive than attracting new ones. Thus, creating a positive customer experience through programming, policies, procedures and personnel training is paramount.
The primary short-term value that recreation facilities deliver to customers is pleasure or fun. In the long term, facilities deliver healthier lives. Since recreational facilities involve physical activity, injury and fatality risks exist. Such events can be minor or catastrophic with substantial moral and financial consequences. On one end of the spectrum, minor issues like poor water or air quality can alienate existing customers, reducing the chance of them becoming repeat customers. On the other end, severe injuries or death can result in terrible anguish, poor public relations and catastrophic liability, all chasing away current and potential customers.
Overall, many aquatic recreational facilities are not operated adequately to minimize the unique risk created by an aquatic environment. Although there are "pockets of excellence," they are separated by expanses of inadequate management and operations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compiled and analyzed data on aquatic facility operations and management from six regions and found troubling results. Ninety-seven percent of the data represented jurisdictions that required trained and certified operators. However, of the 22,131 health department pool inspections, 8.3 percent (1,836) were closed immediately due to severe violations (as reported in the "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report" from June 6, 2003). Out of the 5,209 public spa inspections, the story was worse—about 11.1 percent (578) were immediately closed (as reported in the "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report" of July 2, 2004). Although operator training was required by law, about one in four facilities did not have a certified operator available.
Mounting scientific evidence indicates that aquatic facility managers who do not have trained and certified operators are more likely to place the public at risk. In the February 2007 International Journal of Aquatic Research & Education, Johnson and Kinzinger reported on a study of 572 pools and spas focusing on water quality. They reported that, "A certified pool operator on location makes a significant difference in the water quality and safe operation of our public pools and spas."
Luke Jacobs reported a similar conclusion at the 2005 World Aquatic Health Conference. He found that statistically, certified operators had significantly fewer violations that warranted immediate closures per inspection than pools operated by non-certified operators. An additional study relating operator training to the effectiveness of pool operations will be presented by Dr. Bryan F. Buss at the 2007 World Aquatic Health Conference.
It is a prudent business decision for facility managers to train and certify pool and spa operators to reduce risk. Aquatic venues create several unique risks not familiar to those who manage "dry" facilities, including drowning, recreational water illness, suction entrapment and chemical exposure. Public health leaders acknowledge that pool and spa operator training reduces risk. In fact, 20 state legislatures have implemented operator training requirements. Approximately 18,000 operators achieve certification each year in North America from the leading nonprofit providers, including the National Swimming Pool Foundation's Certified Pool-Spa Operator (CPO) certification training, and the National Recreation & Park Association's Aquatic Facility Operator (AFO). Several for-profit companies also offer operator training programs.
Managers of recreational facilities must implement training and procedures to prevent the key unique risks associated with aquatic venues. Advances continue to be made to minimize these risks. Prevention is paramount.
According to the CDC, in the United States each year, there are about 600 fatal drowning incidents and about 2,800 non-fatal drowning incidents that result in hospital visits. Although most drowning occurs at residences, many incidents occur at public facilities and even guarded facilities. The Consumer Product Safety Commission publishes barrier guidelines to limit access to aquatic facilities. Lifeguards should be certified by one of the many exceptional guarding programs. To further advance guarding, the American Red Cross, the YMCA and US Lifesaving are researching the science behind guarding, in a study partially funded by the NSPF.
The number of RWI outbreaks has been trending upward for over a decade. Pools and spas are perfect places to introduce bacteria, viruses and cysts from users' rectal areas, their skin and the environment. Unless it is properly treated, water also helps harbor, grow and spread disease-causing germs that result in illness.
Proper disinfection and water chemistry controls most pathogenic bacteria. However, chlorine-resistant pathogens like cryptosporidium (crypto) have become the leading cause of documented outbreaks, with 128 outbreaks since 1998. Fortunately, new technologies are available. Educational materials to discourage people from swimming if they are suffering from diarrhea are available from www.healthyswimming.com.
Aquatic recreational facility management also must prevent chemical mishandling. Some toxic chemicals used to disinfect water, prevent RWI and maintain clear water are gentle to the user and the facility. Material safety data sheets (MSDS) and product labels should be carefully consulted. An untrained technician may not realize that mixing certain chemicals will release toxic chlorine gas that could result in a facility or surrounding-community evacuation. Other chemicals could explode or cause an intense fire.
Poor indoor air quality could alienate patrons or increase their risk of asthma or their exposure to potentially carcinogenic disinfection byproducts. Fortunately, ongoing research is under way to improve indoor air quality and minimize formation and exposure to undesirable chemicals.
Pumps are needed to circulate, filter and chemically treat water to maintain sanitary bathing conditions. However, pumping water creates a suction entrapment hazard that must be prevented. Entrapment, entanglement or evisceration occur when a limb, the torso, the body, hair or the buttocks come into contact with a suction outlet, resulting in the victim being held to the outlet. Direct suction can be eliminated from the pool or spa during the design phase. If direct suction is present, options to prevent entrapment are available: dual-main drains, anti-entrapment covers, vent lines and devices that turn pumps off if an entrapment is detected. If a drain cover is missing or damaged, the pool or spa should be closed and remain closed until a new anti-entrapment cover is installed.
Tremendous expense, planning and customer attention is devoted to running an aquatic facility. Maintaining proper water balance helps preserve the facility and reduce maintenance expenses by preventing damage to surfaces and equipment. Equipment installation and operation manuals include preventive maintenance information to ensure the equipment operates properly.
Aquatic facility management must attract and retain customers with value, including a well-run facility.
Implementing training programs for facility staff—including operators—is vital to retain customers, to operate a facility efficiently and to prevent extraordinary expenses that are often a result of preventable injuries, illness, drowning or accelerated facility wear.
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