Aquatic Safety Review, Part 1

By Richard LaRue

A recent trend by some companies is to only report safety issues when more than several people have been hurt and only when the sum total of insurance claims are greater than the cost of fixing the problem.


It's difficult to comprehend why some organizations behave in this manner. Perhaps it's because their organizational focus is on income generation and not on enhancing the quality of the lives of consumers…

As an advocate for safety and risk management, the value of educational and recreational programming can only be truly assessed against the outcome of the experience. Having fun and being safe are, of course, critical to this outcome.

And, whereas program delivery can only be as good as the staff, employees deserve the same safe and healthy environment that program participants are owed.

What follows is Part I of a three-part guide to the important checkpoints in an aquatics facility, whether indoors or outdoors, to help ensure safety.

Part I will focus on Structures and the Pool Environment; Part II will focus on Electrical and Mechanical Engineering; and, Part III will focus on Pool Equipment and Policy Development.

Compare these points to your own safety checklist and use this as an opportunity to review and update your list as appropriate. And, if there's something on your list that we've missed, let us know so that we can update...

Whether your organization has an indoor or outdoor aquatic facility, there are important structural components that are critical to safety and risk management.

I have chosen first to address these structural characteristics in terms of ceilings, walls, floors, and the pool (tank). There are obvious differences between indoor and outdoor facilities.

Regardless of the facility type, from the standpoint of a checklist, ceilings, walls, floors and the pool need to be structurally evaluated as appropriate.

Ceilings: Aquatic facility ceilings should be visually inspected by staff on a regular basis and inspected annually by an engineering professional or firm on contract.

In an indoor aquatic structure, the greatest concern is with the ceiling over the pool. In outdoor pools the ceilings will likely be limited to the office, filter house, and storage spaces unless the locker rooms and shower areas are also covered.

The staff should look for changes in the ceilings, such as discoloration of ceiling materials and other signs of moisture build-up and visible changes in the integrity of ceiling materials.

The engineer should annually inspect the integrity of the ceilings, such as materials that span the facility (especially load bearing beams, etc.); materials that are suspended from the ceiling (insulation, lights, speakers, etc.); and, check for moisture content or build-up in any materials that would be damaged/weakened by moisture absorption.

There can also be visible signs of moisture problems on the outside walls of indoor aquatic facilities, especially when a vapor barrier has failed and moisture is getting into the exterior shell of the facility (these signs are most evident during the winter months in colder parts of the country and include discoloration, cracking due to expansion/contraction of materials, and so on).

Facility maintenance staff or contracted professionals should replace all damaged or affected materials as soon as possible. In the case of moisture build-up it is likely that the integrity of the roof has been breached, the facility either does not adequately manage the aquatic environment with a dehumidifier that is designed for the facility or that the dehumidifier is failing to operate as necessary.

Failure in the dehumidification process in an indoor aquatic facility is a serious problem and needs to be addressed immediately by HVAC-R professionals who understand pool area dehumidification.

In a worst case, a weakened roof can collapse, perhaps while under the added stress of winter (wet snow/ice) when participants and staff are active in the facility.

Walls (and windows): Walls should be visually inspected by staff on a regular basis and inspected annually by an engineering professional or firm on contract.

The staff should look for changes in the walls, such as discoloration of wall sections or vertical streaking and other signs of moisture build-up, the visible presence of mold/mildew, and cracks or adverse changes in expansion joints/seals or between walls and windows/doors, etc.

Windows (and other natural light): Windows provide aquatic facilities with natural light and can be both inviting and aesthetically pleasing (especially to the staff who are working all day in the pool area).

However, windows also provide indoor aquatic facilities with the potential for heat loss, moisture (condensation) collection, and blind spots when guarding the pool (from certain locations).

Blind spots are caused when the windows' natural light overwhelms the indoor or underwater lighting, thereby reflecting off the water's surface and making it very difficult to see anywhere below this reflection.

An opalescent material used in place of windows will limit the glare, but only if the indoor facility lighting is adequate. Underwater lighting can help in such circumstances.

Also, some window coatings can reduce the reflective characteristics of the glass. In situations where there are windows, the indoor aquatic facility staff must always take into account the nature of the above challenges and address them appropriately (see also lifeguard stations below).

Note: HVAC-R systems can be designed to mitigate condensation build-up on windows indoors by installing heating ducts/vents that are directed toward the glass (ideally from below as heat rises). However, whether the heating ducts/vents are at deck height or above the deck level, but below the windows the staff needs to ensure that moisture does not find its way into the ducts/vents!

Worse than heating ducts/vents that blow the heat downward are ducts/vents that can collect water, setting-up the potential for sick building syndrome (where bacteria begins to grow in the ducts/vents and is transported into the facility along with the forced air).

Floors (the pool deck, etc.): The floors/decks should be inspected by staff on a regular basis for places in the deck where water is left standing, moisture condenses (can happen when the floor is colder than the air temperature), the visible presence of mold/mildew, and cracks or changes in expansion seals between walls and deck or the deck and pool (tank).

Staff should also be keenly aware of the deck surface with regard to cleanliness and the absence of anything that might cause harm, such as a hose left out on the deck, deck materials that are wearing or exposing sharp edges, etc.

Broken glass from windows, glass containers, etc. are especially dangerous in pool areas. Glass on the deck needs to be cleaned up meticulously (see also broken glass in the water).

Cleanliness is especially important, and the staff should check some floor areas more frequently than others for reasons of both safety and health...

Shower areas and the hallways leading from showers to pool areas are notorious for a build-up of bacteria that has been inadequately washed off of users prior to leaving the showers, therefore finding its way to the hallway floor. A strong scent of ammonia in these spaces should be a clear indication of the need for immediate cleaning/sanitation.

This same situation occurs where users go in the pool area immediately after showering. Often program participants are asked to report to a corner of the pool deck for instruction prior to entering the water. Over a period of time, these gathering areas will also need spot cleaning (with water and a disinfectant).

Pool: The pool (tank) includes the following physical features: gutter, inlets, outlets (with regard to water recirculation), means of access and egress (ladders, stairs, ramps, lifts, etc.), depth markings (located both on the deck at the pool's edge and on the interior walls of pool just above the waterline), underwater lights (120V AC or 12V DC, UL listed), etc.

Each of these aspects of the pool needs to be inspected by the aquatic staff and/or pool professionals, on a regular basis. Hazardous issues should be addressed immediately and may require closing the pool. Other concerns may be addressed by a daily/weekly/annual maintenance plan.

Indoor pools (occasionally) and outdoor pools (annually) are drained for thorough cleaning, maintenance, and repair. Repairs to the tank are more easily made when the pool is empty.

However, there are a techniques and materials available to repair missing tiles and/or cracks, even in a pool that is full (contact a professional who specializes in swimming pool repairs).

Water Quality: The aquatic staff needs to assess and record (using appropriate tools, like test kits for sanitation and markings on the pool bottom that assess turbidity) the pool temperature and the water quality, and as required by local health code (usually several times per day).

Many pools maintain water quality with automated systems that test the water as it is filtered and then re-circulated back to the pool.

However, automation does not guarantee clean water especially if the system sensors fail or chemical additives run out. And, there can be great variability in pool water quality depending upon pool usage (bather load, bather type). Therefore, the pool staff should be regularly testing the water quality and immediately report any significant change in water quality to the staff who maintain the various water quality systems.

Remember, outdoor pools are often more challenging to maintain the proper water quality as the chemicals used are more easily dissipated through evaporation.

Further, outdoor pools can accumulate more particulate matter in a filtration cycle than indoor pools, because of their exposure to the outdoors (storms, wind, rain, dust, leaves, grasses, pollen, etc.). Therefore, the system of water filtration and recirculation will likely need more frequent attention (backwashing the filters, cleaning filter traps, etc.).

All pools need to be vacuumed on a regular basis (daily or weekly). Vacuuming can be managed with an automated robot vacuum or with a portable vacuum system; appropriate to the pool's design.

Water Temperature, air temperature, and humidity: The aquatic staff should assess and record (using thermometers that measure air and water temperature and equipment that measures humidity) air and water temperature and humidity no less than one time per day, but definitely as required by local/state health code (usually several times per day).

For years the Council for National Cooperation in Aquatics has published a range of 78-82 degrees F for swimming pools. This temperature range affords (if not encourages) user activity. And, this specific temperature range makes the water quality easier to maintain.

Most indoor pools have in place a means to maintain the water and air temperatures through heat exchangers (sometimes tied in with the dehumidification process).

In an indoor pool the balance of temperatures, between air and water, directly affect humidity in the air. When there is little difference between water and air temperature, and the air temperature is only slightly warmer, the pool will evaporate less water into the air. And, when pool air is properly dehumidified, the environment will remain generally more comfortable for all users and staff.

When the humidity in an indoor pool area is too high it can actually cause breathing difficulty for some users. Conversely, if the humidity is too low, moisture will evaporate too quickly off users and make them uncomfortably cold when wet, but out of the water. Aquatic and maintenance staff with specific training in the management of the indoor aquatic environment and related equipment, should control these settings.

Outdoor aquatic facilities, though unable to control air temperature and humidity, still have some responsibility for maintaining the quality of the pool environment, including water temperature and water quality (discussed above).

Outdoor pools with pool water heaters can be kept within the CNCA recommended temperature values if the water is heated-up and the air temperature is within a degree or two of the water. When the air temperature gets warmer, the water temperature will also get warmer (though not as quickly). To lower the water temperature, either cold water will need to be added or the water will need to be cooled using a system designed to cool outdoor water temperature in pools.

Note: In older facilities, the aquatic and maintenance staff must really work closely together to maintain the proper water quality, temperatures and humidity. Staff training is essential to managing these systems correctly.

And, the outcome will effectively work to mitigate the operational challenges of the older aquatic facility. If your aquatic facility does not have a system of dehumidification installed, serious consideration should be given to adding this HVAC-R equipment (see Part II).

Dr. Richard J. LaRue is Chair of Exercise and Sport Performance, University of New England.