Water Hazard

Managing Aquatic Risk

By Daniel Margolis


ecreation managers face risk in their jobs every day: Getting any number of people engaged in activities in or out of the water will bring some level of risk of injury. When aquatic recreation is involved, the potential increases tenfold.

"Whenever you have bodies in water there are risks associated with it, because water is a hazard," said Tom Lachocki, CEO of the Colorado Springs, Co.-based National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). "No one goes to an aquatic facility because they haven't had a rash in a while, or because they feel protected against drowning, suction entrapment or chemical exposures. They go there for recreation or exercise or fun."

It is therefore up to aquatic facility managers to manage such risks appropriately so the end user's experience is a positive one. Doing so, however, is a complex task. Aquatic facility managers must contend with not only the basic risk of drowning, but also unseen threats such as recreational water illnesses (RWIs). They also must make sure their facilities are well maintained and compliant with state and federal codes, and that their staffs are well trained and up to the task of keeping patrons safe. And that's a hefty job.

Basic Training

Jim Wheeler is neighborhood service area manager with the city and county of San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. He also runs his own training and consulting company called Total Aquatic Management, and has over 35 years of experience in aquatics. Before joining the field professionally, he worked as a lifeguard and taught swimming and water safety while in college.

According to Wheeler, the fundamentals of safety in an aquatic facility depend on two things: good staffing provided with applicable, relevant, hands-on training; and facility inspection, evaluation and reevaluation.

NSPF's Alex Antoniou, who has 30 years of experience in aquatics and has directed aquatic programming and supervision for Rutgers University, echoed these fundamentals.

"On a daily basis, before they allow anyone in to the aquatic facility, a manager should make sure they have conducted a thorough inspection of the facility to make sure that there isn't going to be anything that's hazardous to one's health, and that can be structural inspections as well as water quality testing," Antoniou said, adding that it's important that aquatic facility managers get out in front of any potential risk. "Not spending the money on preventative maintenance, seasonal maintenance and waiting for something to break down before you replace it could create hazardous situations."

Just as important to risk prevention is training, something that the public, at times, can take for granted. "Whenever people are getting in water, the perception is that there are trained and certified people operating that facility," Lachocki said. The bad news, he added, is that in 30 of 50 states there are no requirements for pool, spa or waterpark operators to get trained and certified. The good news? "Fortunately, recreation facilities, for the most part, train and certify their operators."

Training, however, only goes so far. Wheeler feels that in addressing aquatic risk, one thing that's frequently overlooked is giving lifeguards the benefit of institutional knowledge gleaned from experience on the job.

"I'm not sure we're always teaching our guards what to look for," Wheeler said. "We're asking them to look for something they may have never seen. People don't sit around on the bottom of the pool; therefore we're not sure what people on the bottom of the pool look like."

To illustrate his point, Wheeler explained that a single individual at the bottom of a pool may be identifiable only by his or her swimsuit. Throw a dozen or more swimmers between a lifeguard and someone on the bottom of a pool, and factor in distractions such as glare, wind or surface disturbance, and identifying a swimmer in distress becomes that much more difficult. To train for these types of situations, Wheeler recommends lay-about drills, in which guards' abilities to discern images placed at the bottom of a pool are tested with and without added distractions.

The level of risk that a lifeguard is presented with on a daily basis underscores the need for aquatic facility managers to make sure they're hiring the right people. "It's always tough to know whether the staff you're trying to hire are just looking for a job for a few extra bucks or whether they are dedicated employees," Antoniou said. "A lot of times facilities will play the game of Russian roulette—99 percent of the time nothing will happen, and when something does happen it can be devastating for the people involved as well as for the facility."

According to Antoniou, problems arise when facilities hire based on a lifeguard's certification training alone. "That's really a bad thing to do because you don't know where they got that certification from," he explained. "Even if it's a valid certification, you don't know what kind of standards the instructor adhered to in their training program."

Wheeler agrees, stating that a 27-hour training course cannot possibly produce a fully qualified lifeguard. "Twenty-seven hours gets me somebody who passed the test," Wheeler said. "Another 90 days of summer in a chair and I might start trusting you. Two summers, if you're good, we'll give you some responsibility, but really we don't ever trust anybody until about their third year of duty, otherwise we have to watch. First- and second-year guards we watch continually."

For guards to earn Wheeler's trust, they must demonstrate a sense of maturity and duty, and understand they're beholden to the general public. "Look, people drop their kids off here expecting to come back at 5 o'clock and have their kid there," Wheeler said. "You make people understand that for two or three hours at a time you have to maintain your focus, and life will go on when you're out of the chair, but for now this is your duty."

That focus can be hard to maintain, and industry experts advocate proper rotation of lifeguard positions in any public facility for that reason. "If you have a guy sitting in a lifeguard chair for eight hours, he's bored to tears," said Randy Mendioroz, principal of Aquatic Design Group, an aquatic design firm based in Carlsbad, Calif. "You have to shift the positions around so that they don't get bored and distracted."

Indeed, how a facility shifts and arranges guards can accomplish what Wheeler calls "layered protection."

"We're never going to put two new guards together on a pool," he said. "We're always going to have a senior guard behind them, and that's really how we're going to prevent drowning."

Just as important to this effort, Antoniou said, is having an emergency system in place for any contingency, and making a staff thoroughly rehearse and prepare for these situations. "It's not just let's get in the water and see if you can save someone, but let's go through the steps and rehearse what your emergency response time would be if it's a diving board injury, a shallow-end injury, a deep-water injury or even just someone collapsing on the deck," he said. "That minimizes time delays."

Antoniou added that this level of preparedness helps keep a facility's staff as safe as its patrons. "We tend to neglect that we need to ensure the health and safety of our staff that work at that facility as well, be it lifeguards or any other support that might be present," he said. "The aquatic manager is ultimately responsible for the safety of everyone in that facility."

Don't Let Safety Slip

The specification of flooring in locker rooms and around pools can be complicated, and safety should always be the priority. However, designers often get it wrong. By definition, design is driven by aesthetics, but aesthetics doesn't count for much when your customer has just slipped on those "pretty" ceramic tiles.

Every year slips and trips cause more accidents than anything else. According to the CDC during 2007 there were over 27 million reported injuries; 8 million of these were fall-related and 19,000 were fatal. Of course, not all of these happened in aquatic centers, but according to the National Floor Safety Institute, 80 percent of all falls that result in a claim happen on a wet and slick surface. The problem with aquatic centers and waterparks in particular is that their very reason for existing puts people in close proximity to large quantities of water, raising the accident risk considerably.

In an ideal world tile surfaces would be removed and replaced by a non-slip material, but this can be expensive and disruptive. A more cost-effective solution is to use some form of matting laid over the existing floor. As the mats themselves can be the cause of trips, care should be taken to minimize this risk. Although there are many types of mats and other surface remedies available, it is vital to choose a slip-resistant product that will remove as much water as possible and thereby retain a drier surface. Mats that have open-grid formats with raised profile underbars are particularly effective because they are designed to drain water toward the floor grilles so that their embossed surfaces remain virtually dry and highly slip-resistant at all times. These types of matting are very hardwearing yet comfortable to stand on, come in a wide range of colors and can be easily rolled up for cleaning the subfloor below. Being supplied in rolls, they are particularly effective as slip-resistant walkways and corridors.

Aquatic centers by nature are wet and warm environments, which makes them perfect for bacteria and fungus. However, this can be easily counteracted because many of these hygienic mats now contain anti-bacterial and anti-fungal additives which are ideal for bare feet.

In today's cost-conscious climate, it may be tempting to try to save money by omitting these common-sense underfoot safety precautions. After all you've just spent a lot of money on those beautiful tiles and it seems such a shame to cover them up! However, just remember that, according to the National Floor Safety Institute, the average cost to defend a slip and fall lawsuit is $50,000, and the average judgment in cases that go to trial is $100,000. Looking at those figures, doesn't it make sense to protect your customers and indeed your business by installing slip-resistant matting in your locker rooms and around your pool?

—Christopher Sykes, Architect

Compliance Questions

All the training in the world won't matter if your facility is inherently unsafe. Depending on the location, various laws will apply, but the most recent national legislation applies to all U.S. facilities.

The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in December 2007. The law requires all public pools to meet anti-entrapment safety standards established by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). It also establishes a grant program for states that adopt these laws and a national drowning prevention program.

On the surface the act seems fairly simple, calling for drain covers and suction entrapment avoidance on drains and barriers in pools. But compliance with the act has proven difficult. In February, Christine Gregoire, governor of the state of Washington, wrote to Nancy Nord, acting chairman of the CPSC, asking that the implementation date for the act, set at Dec. 19, 2008, "be extended 18 to 24 months." She was not alone in making this request; various interest groups have done so as well.

Dennis Berkshire, director of client services for the Aquatic Design Group, Carlsbad, Calif., said these requests are justified, with one qualification. "That's assuming that the drains that a pool has already meet the general intent of the safety requirements of drains," he said. "Most states have had requirements for drains built in an anti-entrapment configuration for years now."

Berkshire points out a number of problems with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. First of all, he points out that as of the law's implementation date, there were almost no commercial pool drains on the market that were compliant. One reason for this is that there are more residential than commercial pools in the United States—much more. This skews where manufacturers of drains target their efforts. "There's a huge disparity between the two, so as a manufacturer, when you're going to produce drains, which one would you try to produce first?" Berkshire asked.

Another issue commercial pools face is that part of act requires that drains must be compliant to a new ASME/ANSI standard, and that standard requires testing not only of body, hair, and finger and limb entrapment, but of a drain's UV reliability. Here, the comparatively larger size of a drain in a commercial pool puts it at a disadvantage, as they may be more likely to suffer from deflection.

Another problem is that some information that the act now requires to determine compliance would have only been available or known when the pool was originally built.

"Short of getting cameras that we can put through these pipes, how do we determine if the contractor installed piping so that it's hydraulically balanced to meet the ASME standard for field-built sumps?" Berkshire asked. "Are you going to dig up, sawcut and chop up the floor and rerun piping, in which case you're going to damage the plaster finish of the pool, so you're going to have to replaster and retile the pool to be able to comply?"

Yet another potential problem is the fact that the act mandates that every public pool must comply with the current ASME/ANSI standard or any subsequent standard. "So if the standard changes in two years, the way this law is written, every public pool would have to go back and change again to comply with the new standard."

According to Berkshire, for some facilities, compliance with the act may not be possible without a major renovation. "In general, everyone is supportive and concerned, and we want to make sure that [pools are] safe and healthy for the public," he said. "But we've had a lot of state laws and codes that had drain requirements to make sure of that, and we've met the major portions of that standard previously. If you're doing a major renovation, absolutely you're going to comply, but until then we're not going to shut pools down that aren't in compliance."

National Swimming Pool Foundation CEO Tom Lachocki agreed, and pointed out that the closing of pools previously deemed safe may actually increase drowning rates, as it could potentially push people toward unsafe swimming situations. "It's a good law and good intent, the challenge we have is that the implementation conflicts with the intent," he said. "The intent of the law as I read it is preventative, not to punish."

There's no way to tell how many pools are in or out of compliance at this point, but anecdotal evidence does suggest that many pools have voluntarily shut down until they can come into compliance.

Identifying 'At Risk' Swimmers Early

Drowning rates for ethnic minority swimmers have been recorded as being three times that of their Caucasian peers. Carol Irwin, assistant professor, health sport sciences, at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, wanted to get to the bottom of this trend. So in January 2008 she went to six urban sites across the United States and gathered 17,000 completed surveys on the subject of children's swimming ability. In the study, sponsored by USA Swimming, 58 percent of African-American children and 56 percent of Hispanic/Latino children indicated they were "at risk" swimmers, meaning they have limited swimming ability; they're either unable to swim or comfortable only in the shallow end of a pool. Only 31 percent of white children, by comparison, indicated they were at risk.

However, in looking deeper at the study's findings, Irwin determined the causal factor to be not so much race, but the children's parents' level of education and income, and therefore she concluded that the trend is socioeconomic in nature.

"What we ended up concluding is really it's not a race issue, it's an income issue," Irwin said. "So what really needs to be done is to try to reach out to those kids who can't afford swim lessons to either get free or low-cost swim lessons, as well as just encourage these kids to swim, because they're drowning at such high rates."

The problem also stems from an aversion to water handed down from generation to generation. "These parents, many of them specifically said they didn't want their kids to be involved in lessons because they might drown, which is so counterintuitive," Irwin said. "Their parents told them to stay out of the water; they didn't learn how to swim so they're just repeating the same message."

The study's results have been published in the International Journal of Aquatics Research and Education, and have also led to the launch of a pilot program in which local sponsors are offering swim lessons to marginalized children in poor areas in Memphis, as well as organizing a diversity swim meet. Irwin said, "We're excited to actually see our research doing something and hope that it can be replicated in other areas."

An Ounce of Prevention

As with many forms of aquatic risk, the best defense against recreational water illness (RWI) is a combination of a well-designed and -maintained facility and well-trained pool operators and staff. But sometimes a little common sense is called for as well.

In 2007, the state of Utah saw an outbreak of cryptosporidium in its public pools, with 1,600 reportedly falling ill. The eventual cause of the outbreak was determined to be toddlers with soiled diapers being allowed in pools, and in late August public health officials asked aquatic facility managers to restrict children under the age of 5 from swimming until the outbreak had subsided.

Aquatic Design Group Principal Randy Mendioroz describes the breakdown that occurred here.

"They were not enforcing common-sense regulations with respect to the public, because we had moms with their little kids literally changing diapers right next to the water or even in the water in a zero-depth entry portion and then washing [them] off on the ground sprays," he said.

This is obviously not sanitary, but once the cause was determined, what followed was an overreaction, Mendioroz believes. "Basically the state of Utah said kids with diapers on them will not be allowed in any public pools, period, so they just way overreacted. A little bit of common sense would tell you not to change a diaper in a swimming pool."

According to Mendioroz, modern pools, if used correctly and in adherence with state codes, can guard effectively against RWIs. Pools use automated control systems that monitor water chemistry either by oxidation-reduction potential or the parts-per-million of chlorine within the water and its pH.

"Most commercial swimming pools have this type of equipment, and they can adjust the feed rate when 300 kids jump in the pool at 1 o'clock in the afternoon," Mendioroz said. "Assuming that the pool is properly designed, it's got an adequate number of turnovers, conforms with the local health codes and you've got an automated water control system, you can nip most of these RWIs in the bud before you have a problem. With a regular program that you're following up on of superchlorination to burn out chloramines, making sure that you have active chlorine residual in your pool water, it's going to take care of 90 to 95 percent of the issues."

But what about the remaining 5 percent? To target that, pool operators can choose to use ultraviolet water sterilization or ozone water purification. "It's a belt-and-suspenders kind of approach where you use a much more powerful oxidant indicates of ozone, like 30 times more powerful than chlorine, while in the case of UV sterilization you basically inactivate the bacteria or virus by passing it through this UV sterilization contact chamber," Mendioroz explained.

These are the most popular methods of combating RWIs in the United States to date. In Europe, more highly evolved methods of water filtration are being introduced.

Jim Tanner, director of aquatic and industrial sales at a manufacturer of water filtration and chemical feed systems, recently returned from a trip to Europe, during which he investigated new approaches to water purification being employed in the region.

"In Europe, they have a much more stringent water quality standard than we do in North America," he said. "They use much better filtration methods; bigger filters, slower rates into those filters and they do some dilution of the water."

Any pool is going to lose some amount of water as it's used, either through evaporation or runoff. Pools make up for this using an automatic makeup water valve, bringing in standard drinking water. "Most people think 'Drinking water's safe because I drink it.' Well in reality, the distribution systems for drinking water, depending on how close you are to the water plant, there are small amounts of chlorine in them, disinfecting the water," Tanner said. "So you get a lot of biofilm in the distribution."

Biofilm is basically microorganisms encapsulated within a protective shell. To combat this, the practice in Europe has become to inject a small amount of chlorine dioxide into the makeup water as it's coming into the pool. Tanner said, "You breakup these biofilms before they get into the pool; separate them so the chlorine can attack it and get the bacteria and viruses before they hit the water."

Tanner described how chlorination has evolved in Europe as well. "What you see in the States is a lot of feeding or salting the pool to produce chlorine on site," he said. "In Europe, they developed a way to produce the chlorine in batch tanks on site and then pump in fresh as needed, almost like they have a little chemical plant right there in the facility."

While Tanner doesn't feel there's any particular "standard bearer" in combating RWIs, he does feel that as these contemporary approaches come into practice in the United States, aquatic recreation will become increasingly free from RWIs. Now, if we can just keep the dirty diapers out of the pool.

Learn More

Published in fall 2008, the Aquatic Risk Management handbook from the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF) is a guide to help pool and spa managers and operators to reduce industry and liability risk.

"Some managers and operators do not understand risk management and think it is simply about safety, or that it has something to do with insurance," said Alex Antoniou, Ph.D., NSPF director of educational programs. "In fact, the job of a pool operator and aquatic manager centers around risk management. Their job is risk management."

The 33-page handbook discusses aquatic risk management, how the law applies in aquatics, case studies, implementing a risk management plan, emergency response plans and more.

Learn more about the handbook at www.nspf.org.

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