Diving rarely enters the national spotlight, but with a focus on U.S. divers at the 2012 Summer Olympics beginning later this month in London, children may approach 3-meter springboards at local aquatic facilities with added curiosity. Consequently, pool operators must be extra vigilant. Relics from the '60s and '70s, the boards — typically accessed by 10-foot ladders and not always off-limits to recreational swimmers — need to be restricted for swimming and diving team use only, according to one aquatics safety expert who has studied springboard diving safety.

"We're just seeing far too many catastrophic falls from these things, off the ladder to the deck," says Tom Griffiths, president of Aquatic Safety Research Group in State College, Pa. "There's not a playground in America where you allow children to freely climb a vertical ladder 10 feet over concrete. But we allow this regularly in aquatics."

Griffiths notes that the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations have reported no fatalities or catastrophic injuries in competitive diving. But a recent study performed by his research firm suggests recreational diving board behavior is difficult to supervise.

Earlier this year, Craig Brown, springboard diving coach at Penn State University, recruited five college-age students (three males and two females) ranging in height from 5 feet, 3 inches to 6 feet. Each of the five subjects performed, among other actions, 10 feet-first step-offs and 10 head-first falls from the board into the water to simulate falling from the top of the board to a concrete deck. No falls took more than one second, and many lasted closer to only a half-second. "Our point is, you can't supervise something that takes a half-second to accomplish," Griffiths says.

If hitting the deck doesn't result in death, then paralysis or catastrophic brain injuries may occur, and Griffiths says deck-related injury lawsuits can pay plaintiffs more than drowning cases. To make 3-meter springboard ladders fall-safe requires the same type of upgrades made to playgrounds when slide ladders were replaced with safer stairways and landings.

Here are his suggestions:

  • The horizontal rails at the diving board level should be increased in number and extended to a foot or more beyond the pool edge in a fall-proof fashion.
  • The ladder should be replaced with a stairway with horizontal landings and railings equipped with safety spindles.
  • When a new 3-meter board is installed, it should be mounted on a wide concrete platform rather than a metal stand. Access to the new board should be by stairway.
  • Soft padding should be placed throughout the entire landing area in the drop zone.
  • If the existing 3-meter diving board cannot be safely renovated, it should be removed.