Aquatic Safety Review, Part 3

By Richard LaRue

Part 1, which ran in the February issue, focused on structures and the pool environment, and Part 2, which ran in the March issue, focused on electrical and mechanical engineering.


Comparing these points to your own safety checklist may be a useful way to update your own policies and procedures. As you review both this material and your own checklist, feel free to forward your ideas so we can all be informed as we work toward safety and risk management planning/implementation that will ensure participant and staff safety in our collective facilities.

Lifeguard Stations & Equipment
1. Lifeguard stations (and chairs): Because of issues with natural lighting indoors (windows) and the varying position of the sun (outdoors) there can be positions about the pool area where lifeguards, whether stationed standing or sitting, may not be able to adequately see all of the pool.

Having the lifeguards stationed in a permanently located chair versus a portable chair may not be a good idea, depending on the how the lighting changes during the day. The daily patterns of natural light/sun can help dictate where a permanent chair might be placed (so as to ensure good visibility of the pool area, the water's surface and below the water). A portable chair provides flexibility to meet the changing needs of a particular facility.

Additionally, and to improve on participant safety, it is important that lifeguards are clearly and easily identifiable and that they are always positioned in effective locations for their work.

This may mean that the lifeguards do not remain stationary, but remain on the move around the pool while guarding the pool, or it may mean that more than one lifeguard is positioned in two or more places around the pool to adequately ensure participant safety given both the lighting quality, and bather load/pool usage.

2. Lifeguard equipment, such as ring buoys (for throwing), reaching poles, rescue tubes, and backboards (for head and neck injuries), respirators, AEDs, etc.: The lifeguard equipment must be in excellent condition and positioned about the aquatic facility so that it is readily available for use in an emergency.

Participants should be made aware of the purpose of such equipment and aquatic staff should be thoroughly trained and regularly practice emergency procedures.

All aquatic facilities must take good care of their equipment. However, outdoor facilities might well consider securing all rescue equipment every time the facility is closed to ensure that a ring buoy doesn't end up hanging on someone's bedroom wall somewhere.

Regular inspection of the integrity of all rescue equipment should be done annually (immediately prior to opening a seasonal facility), and any questionable equipment replaced rather than being put back into service.

3. The placement of equipment is to some extent dictated by the design of the facility and direct and easy access to the pool. Rescue equipment that can be used to reach or throw (reaching poles and ring buoys) can be placed at lifeguard stations (either portable or permanent) or in locations within a few feet of lifeguard positions, so as to be immediately available for use.

Many facilities have their lifeguards on foot, holding a rescue tube and ready to react. Although the rescue tube can be used over short distances to reach or even throw, it is most often used to assist a distress or drowning person in a manner that helps buoy the victim up, improving the probability of a successful assist or rescue.

Because there are differences between distress and drowning victims, aquatic staff needs to know that sometimes seconds mean the difference between life and death.

A distress victim can be quickly aided when the proper equipment is immediately adjacent to the water; a few steps from all swimming or diving areas.

In the case of a drowning victim, the lifeguard will need to enter the water, and having a rescue tube with them at all times facilitates this action.

Once the victim is below the surface or on the bottom, any saving of seconds can significantly improve the outcome of the rescue. As drowning victims can slip beneath the surface without even calling for help, lifeguards must be vigilant in their surveillance responsibilities in an attempt to never let this happen.

From an aquatic staff standpoint, the philosophy should embrace the importance of protecting both the users and the staff. Therefore, rescue tools should facilitate safe rescues where the staff is never at an unreasonable level of risk.

Obviously, the romantic side of life guarding is the dramatic rescue. However, I've never taken to the idea that my staff would need to risk their life to affect a rescue. They should always have adequate tools and proper training to manage all foreseeable situations in the aquatic facility.

Finally, backboards, respirators, AEDs, etc., are really first aid equipment that require appropriate training (though some AEDs actually walk the rescuer through its proper use). The best location may be immediately adjacent the pool at a primary lifeguard station, or the pool office, so that the equipment is always in excellent condition and ready for emergency use.

Regarding backboards, consider that if you need to use your backboard, it will also need to go with an ambulance to the hospital.

If your facility has only one board, you should ask to have the ambulance leave one for your pool operation, until you can get yours back from the hospital.

Also, to ensure a smooth transition between pool staff and EMS, at least once a year (prior to opening for seasonal facilities), make sure you are coordinating services and perhaps even training with each other (see the article by G. Dworkin cited below for additional reasons to collaborate with local emergency agencies).

4. Starting blocks and diving boards (platforms): The aquatic staff needs to regularly inspect starting blocks and diving boards to ensure that they are safe and clean.

The top surfaces and steps/ladders to the top surfaces need to be coated/covered with non-slip materials. If not regularly maintained and/or cleaned, these surfaces can be hazardous.

The various components of the starting blocks and diving boards should also be inspected, such as bolts that connect the equipment to the pool deck, joints (bolted or welded), etc.

Because of the various forces that are applied to starting blocks and diving boards, this equipment should also be annually inspected by an engineering professional or firm on contract.

5. Swimmer aids (floatation devices used by non-swimmers): Whereas floatation devices can be effectively integrated into instructional aquatic programs, their use outside an organized class should be limited to one-on-one supervision and perhaps only during designated times. The aquatic staff, if providing these swimmer aids, must ensure that everything made available for use is regularly inspected and in good condition.

Kickboards, pull-buoys, hand paddles, jogging belts, etc.: These are examples of aquatic equipment designed for both instruction and physical activity. When such equipment is provided by the facility for use by participants, it must also be regularly inspected by the staff and deemed in good condition.

Policy Development & Implementation
1. Policies regarding the use of the above types of pool equipment need to be clearly written and adhered to by participants and staff. This means that participants must be educated regarding the use of this equipment, and the staff must both educate participants and diligently enforce the policies.

2. Aquatic staff should meet all local/state codes regarding lifeguard certification. Their abilities should be regularly assessed and maintained to secure their position on the staff.

And, all certificates should be photocopied and kept on file with the staff members' employment records. Remember, this article is about safety. If the aquatic staff is not adequately prepared in the skills of life guarding and first aid, they are a risk to the user and to themselves.

3. Signage (participant and staff education/notification): The aquatic and maintenance staff should ensure that all signage intended for safe operation of the facility be ADA-compliant and maintained in good repair.

Effective signage is a wonderful educational tool, especially when coupled with graphics that assist visual learners and those who cannot read.

I am aware of one aquatic facility where a graphic depiction of the pool depth (mirror image from deck up on the wall) allowed users to know exactly how deep the pool was as compared to their own height.

4. Pool rules and information such as No running, no diving, shallow and deep ends should be properly stated on the deck and on adjacent walls when appropriate. Signage helps manage user access and egress to both the facility and the pool.

And, different colors in different parts of a pool deck can assist with both safety orientation and education. Aquatic and maintenance staff should work together to modify or add signage whenever the outcome facilitates the effectiveness of operational safety.

Pool rules affecting health/safety: Perhaps the most important rule for aquatic facilities is to only post the rules that will be enforced.

If the staff fails to enforce rules, it's possible that the facility could be held negligent in the event that a participant is injured doing something the rules stated the user was not allowed to do.

Therefore, all posted rules must also be enforceable and enforced. Consider the rules you have posted in your aquatic facility and assess whether they can be enforced and whether the staff is properly trained in enforcement.

And, remember the facility may have users who cannot read the pool rules, so these too need to be part of the user orientation.

5. Soap showers prior to bathing: Typically this is a requirement of local/state health code. However, if the water quality is being properly managed, whether users properly shower or don't, should not be a health hazard.

6. Caps for long hair: Hair will collect in any pool over a period of time. Considering the thousands of hairs lost by users each day it's hard to believe that caps will significantly change the need to regularly vacuum the pool bottom.

Again, with proper water quality and pool maintenance, hair should not be a health hazard. I've seen participants with long hair that is not confined by a cap get in the way of their ability to swim (particularly when learning). If this situation should occur, asking the user to wear a cap may be better used as advice than as a rule.

7. Open wounds and infectious diseases: Another typical local/state health code does not allow bathers to have open wounds or infectious diseases.

Unless the wound is easily visible to the staff, or the staff have access to participant medical records (which they may have for certain aquatic programs). Staff enforcement of these rules must take the form of participant education as the best means of enforcement.

8. Don't Pee in the Pool… Yet another seemingly unenforceable rule! Obviously this is a water quality issue and the aquatic or maintenance staff, through proper training and careful assessment and management of the water quality can ensure a pool that will be healthy to users.

Common sense has the staff encouraging users to use the toilets prior to taking a soap shower and entering the water. And, aquatic facilities with a bathroom immediately adjacent to the pool (especially if the locker rooms are a bit further away) can simplify the challenge of keeping the water quality free from urine, UFOs (unidentified floating objects) and even vomit.

9. No Running or Horseplay on the Deck: This is a rule that aquatic staff must choose to enforce if they want participants to refrain from this kind of behavior. Pool decks are not a good place for anyone to run or frolic… So, the staff needs to heed these rules as well (especially if they expect to set a good example for users)!

10. As a final suggestion aquatic and maintenance staff are encouraged to work together to create a formal plan that addresses all aspects of safety for the aquatic facility.

This plan should include a customized checklist for the facility that clearly identifies what is to be inspected, who is responsible, what interval is expected or required, what actions are to be taken and what records are to be kept.

Each aquatic facility has unique characteristics that may or may not be covered by the general descriptions given above. However, every aquatic facility should be maintained in a manner that ensures the safety of participants and staff.

Additional Resources
United States Lifesaving Association (USLA):

International Life Saving Federation Medical Commission's Position Statement on Sun Dangers for the Lifeguard:

Dworkin, G. (2001), The Need For Collaborative Agreements Between Fire And Rescue Agencies And Aquatic Recreation And Lifeguard Agencies. Available on-line at

Lifeguard Effectiveness, A Report of the Working Group (Center for Disease Control):

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