That Can’t Happen Here. Can It?

January 17, 2012

Drowning in Massachusetts Pool

Rebecca Boyd
Aquatics and Risk Management Coordinator
University of Waterloo

With the news coverage of a woman’s body being discovered in a Massachusetts pool, apparently three days after she went missing, a great deal of attention is being focused on the lifeguards and what they may or may not have done that contributed to this bizarre series of events that led to the tragedy of the mother of five losing her life. The incident involves Marie Joseph who went swimming on a hot Sunday afternoon with neighbours, had a collision with the 9-year old neighbour at the bottom of a slide and never resurfaced. It involves allegations of lifeguards ignoring information about the missing woman and neighbours assuming she left the pool. It involves inspections on two days by two Health Inspectors on the days her body was assumed to be at the bottom of the pool, of a permit being issued by the Inspectors to a pool too cloudy to see the bottom in the four foot shallow end or at the 12 foot deep end.

Lifeguard and administrators from around the globe have been quick to express their shock and declare that this type of incident could never happen here. A television interview of lifeguards and pool managers at another Massachusetts pool categorically stated that could not happen at “their pool”. While there is legislation in Ontario in the form of Health Regulations that govern pool chemistry and clarity (among other things), the recent changes to Health Regulations in provinces such as British Columbia may increase the chance of unsafe pool opening. In Massachusetts, the clarity of the water appears to be a strong contributing factor to the death of Marie Joseph. The checks and balances put in place in the form of lifeguards, pool regulations and health inspections appear to have failed.

We know from experience that incidents related to water clarity occur. Remember the days when we would close a pools deep end if it was cloudy, but keep the shallow end open? While we have moved on from that frightening practice, the drowning in Toronto in 1997 and in Arthur in Ontario in 1993 due to “murky water” reminds us of the importance of water clarity in our pools.

The Ontario Health Regulations require a minimum of 0.5 ppm of chlorine and a pH range of 7.2 — 7.8. The assumption is that if the pool water being tested is within these ranges, the water must be safe to swim in. Yes, correct chemistry reading will help keep swimmers safe from recreational water illnesses, but does not necessarily address the clarity of the water. This is where other parts of regulations come in. The ability to clearly see a 150 mm black disc at the pools deepest point from 9 m away is a regulation in Ontario’s Health Regulations 565 and under Manitoba’s Swimming Pool and Other Water Recreational Facilities Regulation 132/97. British Columbia’s revised regulations of April 2011, also requires a black disc of 150 mm on a white background, at the deepest point of the pool, be clearly visible. These regulations work to ensure the pool bottom of public swimming pools is clearly visible to lifeguards.

But written regulations do not lifeguard a pool. They guide and govern pool operations, but it is the human lifeguard that performs the scanning and inspections on a daily basis. Lifesaving Society — Alberta and North West Territories Branch research presented at the 2007 World Congress on Drowning shows that even in pool water with “perfect” chemistry readings and the black disc being visible, there are other factors which make it challenging for lifeguards to see someone on the bottom of the pool. Lifeguards have the regulations requiring them to close a pool when the water clarity is poor, but have managers given them the authority to do so? Has the culture of responsibility been created at the facility to enable staff to close a pool when the bottom cannot be clearly seen on a steaming hot day when the pool is at capacity, and not lose their job? If staff are not knowledgeable about the regulations and their responsibilities or they do not feel empowered to make the important call on closing the pool, this type of tragedy can occur here in Canada.

In this most recent case, the lifeguards, pool managers and health inspectors failed to follow the State Sanitary Code: Chapter V, which deals with water clarity. Ironically, these are the same black disc requirement used in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia. The city of Falls River health inspectors noted in the report that was used to issue the pool permit, that the water was cloudy but issued the permit regardless. Had one of the groups involved — lifeguards, managers, inspectors – followed the written regulation on water clarity, the tragic death of Marie Joseph might have been avoided.

Much of the focus in the Massachusetts drowning is focussing on the lifeguards’ performance and there is much information to yet be publicized following multiple investigations. The important lesson for everyone involved in the operation of public pools is to know the regulations and to feel and be empowered to enforce them, regardless of the popularity of the decision.

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