Prioritizing the Four Universal Pool Rules

January 17, 2012

Matthew D. Griffith, M.S., RCRSP
Georgia Institute of Technology

It is well-known that educating guests is vital to their safety and an important component of a risk management plan. What isn’t as clear for many facility operators is what the most important information to get across is. It is not atypical for swimmers to be overwhelmed with signage listing a dozen or more pool rules when visiting an aquatic facility. This is unfortunate because most people only spend a few seconds reading signs. The result is poor communication of potentially important information. Therefore, pool rules and regulations should be placed into one of three categories: MUST know, SHOULD know, and NICE to know information. The information guests MUST know is information which could lead to catastrophic injury or death.

Within this category, there are four warnings that apply universally to almost all aquatic facilities. These are the four most important warnings to sign and enforce because if left unaddressed, they can lead to catastrophic accidents resulting in death or paralysis.

1. Warn parents to supervise their children

Most drownings and catastrophic injuries to young children could be prevented if parents diligently watched their children in and around the water. Even the best trained and most vigilant lifeguards cannot watch every child as closely as that child’s parent. It is the responsibility of aquatic management to continually remind parents to actively watch their children. This can be accomplished through the use of well placed and appropriately emphasized signs as well as through lifeguard intervention.
Often parents do not realize that passive supervision, which they practice at home, is unacceptable at the pool. They do not understand how quickly drowning can occur. Parents must be in the water participating with children who are weak or non-swimmers. This active supervision is critical because it only takes seconds for a child to drown. A message such as “Parents, if you’re more than an arm’s length away, you’ve gone too far” is important to a facility’s risk management plan. In the end, nothing can substitute for good parental supervision.

2. Aggressively warn against head-first entry

It takes less than two seconds to render a person paralyzed from a catastrophic neck injury. Lawsuits resulting from serious neck injuries acquired while diving into shallow water settle for as much as $10 million. The best defense that risk management and aquatic professionals have against head-first entry is effective warnings.

Proper signage and pool markings play an important role in warning guests about the danger because it is hard to predict who will dive and once a person has initiated the dive, it is impossible to stop them. “No Diving — Shallow Water” signs with the international “no diving” symbol should be placed on the pool deck and on vertical surfaces around the facility in all areas where the water is less than nine feet deep.

Most diving injuries happen in water that is five feet deep or less. In fact, of the spinal cord injuries that occurred in public pools, 95% were from the deck in less than five feet of water (Devivo & Sekar, 1997). Conservatively though, the magic depth for safe diving is about nine to ten feet. This is the minimum depth any head-first entry should be attempted into. Aggressive warnings are the only way to prevent spinal injuries.

3. Warn against breath-holding and prolonged underwater swimming
Competitive and repetitive breath-holding and underwater swimming are deadly activities. Shallow water blackout (SWB) is the consequence of such activities and can result in drowning or sudden death by cardiac arrhythmia. Even after years of educational outreach in the aquatic community, this continues to be one of the least known but most deadly activities taking place in swimming pools.

The problem is the lack of education of the pool users. Swim coaches and instructors often encourage this behavior because they think it is beneficial and are not aware of the deadly consequences. Contrary to common belief, restricted breathing training and breath-holding does not have any metabolic advantages.

Another problem is it often occurs to highly skilled and competitive athletes who are oftentimes better swimmers than the lifeguard on duty. Many free divers, spear fisherman, Navy SEALS, and highly competitive swimmers have died from shallow water blackout. Since the most common location for a SWB incident is in a traditional competitive lap swimming pool, it is imperative that all facilities prohibit this dangerous behavior and warn swimmers and coaches against it.

4. Warn non-swimmers to wear a lifejacket
According to a recent study, 58% of black children, 56% of Hispanic children and 31% of white children in the Unites States have low or no swimming ability (Irwin, Irwin, Ryan, & Drayer, 2009). Although significant efforts to enhance lifeguarding by organizations, such as the Lifeguard Standards Coalition, are sure to make pools safer, the most effective drowning prevention strategy of all is to require non-swimmers to wear a lifejacket.

It is not humanly possible to maintain constant, vigilant supervision by parents or lifeguards. A brief lapse in concentration or quick distraction is all it takes for a child to silently slip under the water and drown. This is why floating non-swimmers is the best strategy we have against drowning. Facilities should provide U.S. Coast Guard-approved lifejackets to guests for free and require all non-swimmers less than 48 inches tall to wear one in all bodies of water. Good signage educating guests about the necessity of lifejackets in important to change people’s perception that lifejackets are only for open water.

In 2008 the Aquatic Safety Research Group started a water safety program called the National Note and Float Program. This national campaign is aimed at identifying non-swimmers as they enter the facility through a swim test, educating parents about active supervision, and requiring that non-swimmers wear a USCG-approved lifejacket. The implementation of a program like ‘Note and Float’ will not only make the facility safer for swimmers but will also reduce liability.

Emphasizing these four rules more than all others is a sound risk management strategy. Good signage and enforcement of these warnings is important so that the information doesn’t get lost among the “should know” and “nice to know” information. Warnings about non-catastrophic concerns should be deemphasized to avoid taking away from the most important warnings. Ultimately, if these four pool rules are not prioritized, catastrophic injury or death could be the result.

Devivo, M. J. & Sekar, P. (1997). Prevention of spinal cord injuries that occur in swimming pools. Spinal Cord, 35, 509-515.
Irwin, C.C., Irwin, R.L., Ryan, T.D., & Drayer, J. (2009). Urban minority youth swimming (in)ability in the United States and associated demographic characteristics: Toward a drowning prevention plan. Injury Prevention, 15, 234-239.

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