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Aquatic Risk Management Must be Structured, Organized, Documented to Avoid Liability

It's mainly common sense, but aquatic risk management must be structured, organized and documented to avoid liability.


When managing an aquatic facility, there are so many potential hazards that the vital task of risk management can seem burdensome and overwhelming. A quick review of accidents and subsequent lawsuits, however, reveals that the vast majority of catastrophic accidents are the result of a very small number of common and recurring lapses-most often inadequate warnings or supervision.

Fortunately for accident-averse aquatic facility operators, a number of models exist for performing routine risk-management procedures. If these tools have a down side, it's that their comprehensive quality raises the potential for confusion. For example, while checklists developed to assist aquatic administrators in performing daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal audits often uncover a myriad of hazards, some of these must be attended to immediately, while others may not. Aquatic risk management begins by following the minimal codes or standards enacted by local regulatory agencies such as the Department of Health.

Identified hazards are eliminated or reduced or, if they can't be, warnings to pool users are posted or regularly announced. To ensure compliance with codes and to anticipate potential trouble spots, many aquatic administrators do a safety "walkabout" daily, just before the pool opens and closes. This pragmatic approach is most easily seen in what one might call the "four P's" of aquatic risk management:

  • Physical hazards
  • Personnel qualifications and credentials
  • Programs following national standards, and
  • Policies and procedures that are valid and enforced regularly.

It has often been said that aquatic risk management is mostly common sense. Although that statement is true, the common sense used to manage facilities must be structured, organized and placed in a written format to document that risk management is actually taking place.

While the following list of "commandments" does not cover all the areas where accidents are possible and is certainly not a complete guide to risk management, it serves as a quick summation of the most lifethreatening types of flaws that persist in many aquatic facilities today.

As such, these are the areas that, even if a death or drowning does not result, will adversely affect your facility if left unchecked. Therefore, when initiating a risk-management plan for your facility, check these areas first, and remind your employees of each area's significance.

I. THOU SHALT SUPERVISE YOUR LIFEGUARDS OFTEN The majority of lifeguards in North America are unmarried teenagers without children of their own. Lifeguarding is the very first job many teenagers land, so in many instances they have still not developed a keen work ethic and in virtually all cases they have a lot to master besides being a good lifeguard. Socializing, schoolwork and peer acceptance are among the concerns that could cause young lifeguards to be distracted on duty. Regardless of how mature teenage lifeguards may appear, pool operators must remember they are still very young.

Maturity and responsibility are not inherent traits, and these learned skills take time to develop. For this reason, lifeguards must be supervised regularly and often-regardless of their education, training, maturity, experience and age. While vigilant lifeguards are the key to running a safe aquatic facility, supervision of lifeguards is the only way to ensure vigilance. Increasing wages to attract older, more mature and experienced lifeguards may also help in this regard.

II. THOU SHALT NOT OPERATE WITHOUT A CERTIFIED AQUATIC FACILITY OPERATOR OR CERTIFIED POOL OPERATOR Ronald Gilbert, a retired attorney specializing in water safety litigation, has adamantly stated that the missing link in all his successful trials was the defendant's lack of a certified AFO/CPO on duty at the time of the accident. It is apparent that the certified AFO/CPO is much more of a risk manager than the lifeguards on duty, and he or she tends to appreciate the consequences of breaches in safety and the standard of care.

Certainly, there is far more to the field of risk management than either of these certification programs can touch on in a limited amount of time. But a certified manager or operator does receive two full days of comprehensive instruction; he or she also establishes networks and allies, and becomes at least familiar with resources and references in which more detailed information is available. In addition, an AFO/CPO is more adept at handling the public-relations and information side of a crisis. Young lifeguards typically do not enjoy dealing with adults, particularly when there is a confrontation.

III. THOU SHALT MAINTAIN A GROUP-USE POLICY Many groups (church, school, civic, daycare) are attracted to aquatic facilities because they provide certified lifeguards who not only protect guests, but who also serve as a sort of free baby-sitter, giving teachers, parents and counselors a needed break. When lifeguards see these groups coming, they tend to relax because they assume the adults will be watching the children.

This is a major miscommunication-the adults in attendance expect the lifeguards to be watching the children, so rather than having double coverage, double trouble is often the result. It is shocking how quickly and quietly children drown during a field trip to the pool, often on their very first visit. When a lawsuit results, finger-pointing occurs on both sides: Lifeguards say that the adults should have been watching, while the adults claim they came to the facility because it was (supposedly) guarded.

A well-written group-use policy should delineate the expectations for both lifeguards and parents/guardians. Lifeguards need to be told of the need for extra diligence in such situations. Group-use policies should also include pool rules and expectations for group leaders such as appropriate adult-to-child ratios, PFD (personal flotation device) use, nonswimmer rules and so on.

IV. THOU SHALT WARN AGAINST HEAD-FIRST ENTRY We now know that, as far as head-first dives are concerned, it takes really deep water to prevent catastrophic injuries. Yet, the growing trend in this country is to construct more leisure-based aquatic facilities that use their shallow-water areas as a selling point.

While there is no magic depth for safety when attempting a dive, between 9 and 10 feet will suffice in most cases. Dives from springboards and towers will require even deeper water. Low boards (1 meter) need at least 11 feet while high boards (3 meter) need more than 12 feet. Towers can require as much as 17 feet of water; while some groups suggest 20 feet, that's probably too deep. (It is interesting to note that the sport of springboard diving has never had a safety problem in this country, as it is conducted in pools that meet diving depths and distances required by the applicable rulebook.)

All areas of an aquatic facility with depths of under 9 feet must be marked with a "NO DIVING" warning. A growing trend is to mark the entire shallow section of the pool as a no-diving zone, usually with a red stripe painted on the pool deck around the perimeter of the shallow- water areas. It is vital that pool operators aggressively and creatively utilize a variety of signs, graphics and warnings to prevent head-first entries from the deck into shallow water.

That said, nothing will separate a fool from his mission. It takes less than two seconds to render a patron quadriplegic, and it cannot be predicted who will perform a head-first entry and when it will occur. Forward rotation of the body toward the water is the only indication that someone is going to enter head-first and by that time, it is too late. So while even the most aggressive campaign to stop diving into shallow water may not be successful, at least you will know that you have done your part in educating your guests. If nothing else, your defense in a court of law will be strengthened.

V. THOU SHALT WARN AGAINST BREATHHOLDING AND UNDERWATER SWIMMING Competitive, repetitive breath-holding drills and games are extremely dangerous and must be curtailed in all bodies of water. While the physiology of this underwater event is complicated, the possible result is quite straightforward-death by drowning or cardiac arrhythmia. Breath-holding and underwater swimming is usually performed by better swimmers, so accidents often go undetected when problems arise.

Competitive swimmers, lifeguards and even Navy SEALs have drowned or died while performing breath-holding drills. When it comes to breath-holding in the water, the rule should be simple and clear-just don't do it! Swim coaches and competitive swimmers most often violate this commandment and if hypoxic training is taking place in your facility, coaches and swimmers alike must be warned.

VI. THOU SHALT VIGILANTLY GUARD CHILDREN OF TENDER YEARS Seventy percent of all preschoolers who have drowned were in the care of one or both parents at the time of the accident. Parents typically are distracted from watching their children at aquatic facilities, and even if they're watching, many are unable to recognize when their children are at risk or in trouble. Pool operators must be more vigilant in supervising children under the age of seven and in shallow areas, even when they are with their parents. Where parents and toddlers congregate, use shallow-water lifeguards or safety lookouts when fully certified guards are not adequate in number. Lifeguards must be reminded to watch toddlers even when they believe parental supervision is present.

VII. THOU SHALT REMIND PARENTS TOWATCH THEIR CHILDREN "Parents, PLEASE watch your children-it only takes seconds to drown" is one warning that should regularly appear at multiuse aquatic facilities. Throughout the state of Illinois, signs are now required that read, "Lifeguards enforce rules and regulations and respond to aquatic emergencies, but parents are ultimately responsible for the safety of their children."

Even the most vigilant lifeguards cannot watch children as closely as those children's parents. The Lifesaving Society in Canada has a saying: "Parents, if you're more than an arm's length away, you've gone too far." This statement appears with a picture of a crying toddler in the water. Perhaps the United States Consumer Product Safety Division says it best: "Nothing can replace close parental supervision around the water." In addition to reminding parents to watch their children at the pool, it would be a good idea for aquatics professionals to take up the banner of promoting drowning-prevention strategies in all situations-not just in the public pool, but in lakes, backyard pools, spas, bathtubs, buckets and even toilets.

VIII. THOU SHALT POST AND FOLLOW A FECAL-ACCIDENT POLICY While the drowning rate may be decreasing in the United States, apparently more people are getting sick in public pools. Most of the illnesses are caused by enteric pathogens that follow the fecaloral route. Cryptosporidium, a protozoan parasite, is of particular concern. It requires high levels of chlorine to kill and can make people extremely sick. It can even be deadly in certain populations; like most waterborne maladies, cryptosporidium most often affects the very young, elderly and debilitated populations.

The E. coli bacteria is also a concern. In 1998, 26 children at a waterpark outside Atlanta became sick from E. coli, and state health officials blamed fecal contamination in a shallow-water pool. While watery diarrhea is a valid concern because it indicates that the guilty swimmer may be infected with cryptosporidium, E. coli, giardia or some other waterborne pathogen, a normal, healthy stool should not induce panic at your facility. Fortunately, because of the renewed interest in water quality, it is now socially acceptable and politically correct to talk about poop in the pool.

Educate your guests about how to prevent illnesses through good hygiene, explain your fecal-accident procedure and turn up the chlorinator. In addition to safeguarding patrons, a good "poop policy" will help to keep pool water clean and clear. One of the most practical educational materials in this area is being produced by the Oregon Health Division, an informational bulletin on fecal-accident protocol at pools and spas for the state that is well-written and easy to understand. For a copy, contact the division at the State of Oregon Department of Human Services, Environmental Services and Consultation, 800 N.E. Oregon St. #21, Portland, OR 97232-2162.

IX. THOU SHALT WARN AND PROTECT AGAINST ENTRAPMENTS AND ENTANGLEMENTS Any drain or outlet can cause a severe entrapment/entanglement risk in aquatic facilities, particularly those that have single outlets leading to a circulation pump. A variety of strategies must be utilized to prevent these injuries, including intact grates, anti-vortex covers, multiple outlets and emergency shutoffs.

Many lifeguards and facility operators-let alone patrons-do not understand or appreciate the entrapment hazards that exist in public pools. Patrons must be warned to stay away from all outlets, drains and orifices. All drain covers should be inspected daily, since catastrophic accidents can take only milliseconds to occur. Particularly with hot-water spas, emergency shutoffs should be clearly identified in red and placed close to the pool.

It may seem callous to bring up cold, hard cash figures, but it is important to note that negligence in this area can be costly to a pool operator. While a settlement after a drowning might cost as much as $1 million and a catastrophic neck injury up to $10 million, an entrapment causing disembowelment can cost as much as $35 million.

X. THOU SHALT NOT ELIMINATE NUMEROUS BENEFITS BY ELIMINATING ALL RISKS This commandment must be followed if you want to have a well-used and enjoyable facility that meets the needs of your visitors. Swimming and diving-indeed, anything having to do with water-involves some inherent risk. If all risks are eliminated, attendance will drop and those who do attend will be bored.

Some of the risk-management techniques that should at least be questioned include clearing indoor pools during lightning storms, banning the use of all flotation devices, closing pools in the instance of a localized fecal accident, and eliminating all equipment such as diving boards and slides.

Take lightning. While a lightning strike could conceivably follow pool plumbing and equipment back to the pool and seriously shock users, there are no statistics to support the possibility.

Plenty of data is available, however, that suggests that serious shocks can occur through use of phones, showers and computers during storms. Data also shows that the incidence of car accidents rises during strong storms; one could make the case that when we close indoor pools during electrical storms, we may be placing our patrons at a greater risk than if they remained in the water.

Following the ten commandments of aquatic risk management should allow pool operators to create an extra layer of protection for patrons-and help them sleep better at night.

While the study of risk management can be quite academic and comprehensive, the above practical list is an easy way to get started in managing a safer and more enjoyable facility.

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