More fun in the sun with recreational water safety
With soaring temperatures and sunny days, summertime sees high rates of recreational water activity. Unfortunately, these pastimes are not risk-free: each year thousands of people are injured, contract water-borne illness, or drown. If your tribe or tribal enterprise owns an aquatic facility or manages natural water features in which people recreate, make sure you take all necessary steps to promote recreational water safety.
Drowning occurs when a victim is submerged and experiences inhalation of water into the lungs. Drowning can be fatal or non-fatal, but non-fatal drownings can still seriously impair quality of life, especially if brain damage has occurred due to oxygen deprivation.
All physical activity has inherent risks, but some common injuries include sun burn, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, as well as more general injuries such as abrasions, sprains, or breaks. Injuries that would normally prove nonfatal on land can be exacerbated if they are sustained while in the water. They can dramatically increase the risk of subsequent drowning. Of particular concern is experiencing a head, neck, or spinal injury while in the water.
Water is a prime vector for illness and parasites. Some common recreational water illnesses (RWIs) include Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella, E.coli, and Norovirus. Chlorine or other chemical treatments are a common prevention method; however, chemicals usually must be kept at precise levels in order to be effective. Additionally, improper use can lead to skin, eye, and respiratory irritation, so caution and care must be taken during handling and application.
In natural water features such as lakes, parasites such as Swimmer’s Itch are a common complaint, as are the ill effects of harmful algae blooms. If these hazards are present, post warning signs with all applicable information. Depending on the severity, it may also be necessary to prohibit recreation. Create a schedule for inspections and water testing if algae blooms or other seasonal hazards are a concern.
Types of water features
Aquatic facilities (can include one or more of the following):
- Indoor or outdoor pool
- Splash pad or fountains
- Wave pools
- Lazy rivers
- Hot tub / spa / whirlpool
Natural water features:
Recreational water safety tips for aquatic facilities
Hiring lifeguards to scan the water for unsafe behaviors or distressed swimmers can greatly reduce the likelihood of injury or accident. Require lifeguards to obtain certification from a nationally recognized agency such as the American Red Cross, YMCA, Starguard, or Ellis & Associates. Remind the public that lifeguards are not free babysitters – recreational water safety is everybody’s business.
Hiring a facility manager is also a great idea. These positions usually require additional training and certification, making them a valuable asset in both day-to-day operations as well as emergency scenarios. Managers can oversee lifeguard operations and training plus supervise other facility elements such as maintenance, reporting public health hazards and administrative duties.
If it is not feasible for your facility to hire such staff, then be sure to post safety rules, “swim at your own risk” signs, and have water rescue equipment clearly marked and readily accessible, such as a shepherd’s crook or ring buoy.
Aquatic Facilities Operator (AFO)
Regardless of whether your facility employs lifeguards or facility managers, we highly recommend having an Aquatic Facilities Operator (AFO) on staff. Information on AFOs can be found at the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) website. You can also contact your local health district to find more information and trainings. An AFO will ensure you have at least one staff member who is knowledgeable in water chemistry, mechanical systems, disinfection, safety, and much more.
Facility Rules and Procedures
Each aquatic facility should be carefully analyzed in order to ensure that rules and procedures are adequate and appropriate. For instance, a small, unguarded pool will require different procedures than a large water park with multiple attractions. Some ideas include:
- Document all injuries, illnesses, or incidents.
- Establish procedures for first aid/emergency medical services.
- Implement rules such as requiring young children to stay within arm’s reach of an adult, passing a swim test to access the deep end, etc.
- If you permit life jackets, only allow those that are Coast Guard-certified and remind the public that just because an object floats does not make it a life safety device.
- Develop action plans to address emergencies the facility is likely to encounter (e.g., inclement weather, bodily fluid response, etc.).
Implement a regular maintenance schedule and ensure all equipment or features are maintained according to manufacturer specifications. Monitor water quality and chemical use regularly and record all results of water tests. Water testing and chemical use should be conducted only by staff that have been trained to do so and that are at least 18 years of age.
Make sure your facility complies with all applicable local laws. Provide life safety equipment that is clearly marked and easily accessible and post rules, regulations and warning signs in conspicuous locations in all applicable languages. Make sure adequate first aid equipment and supplies are available. Also consider the following:
- Prevent unauthorized access with fence or gate facilities.
- Equip doors with self-latching handles; lock doors after-hours.
- Clearly mark water depths.
- If night swim is permitted, provide adequate illumination.
- Install handrails in showers, locker rooms, stairways, etc.
- Apply non-slip treatments to floors and other walking surfaces.
Recreational water safety tips for natural water features
It is less common for natural water features to have lifeguards on duty, but they are still an excellent safety investment. Note that open-water lifeguards may be required to undergo additional certification due to the different risks found in natural water features.
Clearly mark all hazards, post pertinent information, and clearly state both acceptable and prohibited activities. Also post all applicable laws that may apply to certain activities. If a water feature is not staffed, implement occasional inspections to ensure all rules are being observed.
Buoy lines are a good visual reminder to indicate safe and unsafe recreational areas.
Animal / Plant Life
Post warning signs for any dangerous animal or plant life that may be present. If plant life is creating unsafe conditions, such as excessive reeds near a shoreline that’s commonly used for wading, consider hiring a maintenance crew to minimize the hazard.
If other facilities are available to the public, such as restrooms, changing rooms, picnic areas, campgrounds, boat launches, docks, floating platforms, and so on, be sure they are regularly inspected, maintained and kept in good condition.
There is a great deal of additional information available regarding recreational water safety. The following is a small sample of available resources:
- Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) All-Inclusive Model Public Swimming Pool and Spa Code available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- American Red Cross Lifeguard Manual (as well as other free manuals and fact sheets on related topics)
- United States Coast Guard life jacket information (as well as other resources regarding safe boating)
- National Parks and Recreation Association (NPRA) AFO Prep Materials and additional resources
- May is National Water Safety Month. Click to review their free resources and information
For additional assistance or information, please contact your Arrowhead Tribal risk manager, Mark Sherwood, at firstname.lastname@example.org.