In the United States, commercial swimming pools generally are recognized as one of three types — private pools, semipublic pools or public pools. Semipublic pools — those located at hotels, resorts, condominiums and health clubs — are the subject of this article. Their use is usually restricted to registered guests, tenants or members. In the U.S., semipublic pools usually are regulated by codes at the state level. For example, where I live, the Florida Department of Health in the document 64E-9 regulates swimming-pool safety and establishes codes that are enforced at local levels. Though adopted at the state level, many of these codes are based on recommendations articulated primarily from the ANSI voluntary consensus standards for swimming pools, which are written by experts across the nation.

In addition, semipublic pools in the U.S. must be in compliance with several rules and contain safety features aimed at preventing drowning, illness and injury. Examples of these include barrier fences, child-proof self-latching entry gates, shepherd’s hooks, lifesaving buoys with attached lines, emergency phones, depth markers and “no diving” warning signs strategically located around the pool’s perimeter.

The Virginia Graeme Baker Federal Pool and Spa Safety Act, which took effect in 2008, requires pools to have anti-entrapment protection. Pools operated at night must be illuminated well enough to see the pool bottom, depth makers and “no diving” signs. Artificial lighting to accomplish this must emit 6 foot candles of illumination or greater.

Additionally, operators are required to maintain water chemistry at levels defined by the CDC.

In developing countries, semipublic pools are not similarly regulated. Consequently, these pools often exhibit conditions that make them inherently dangerous. This may come as a surprise, especially to Americans expecting these pools to be similarly regulated and equally safe as the pools where they swim at home. Despite this expectation, the findings from a study I performed indicate that this is not the case. The majority of pools located overseas, especially those in developing countries, do not comply with the safety standards required and expected by the American public.

 Around the globe

To evaluate the seriousness of the problem, I conducted a three-year investigation evaluating 86 swimming pools in seven overseas countries and territories, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Haiti, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Thailand, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Due to logistical problems, the sample was reduced to 42 pools while lighting standards were evaluated. Nevertheless, the sample was large enough to reach some important conclusions about lighting.

The results of this study are summarized in the chart above. Every pool that was evaluated had at least one, if not several, safety issues that would represent a significant violation in the United States. In the majority of cases, these violations, if committed in the U.S., would force a pool closure until remedied. Of the 10 criteria comprising the focus of this study, only one — the inclusion of depth markers and “No Diving” signs — had a compliance rate exceeding half, and only minimally.

The remaining eight safety features had a compliance rate significantly below 50 percent.

Especially alarming was the fact that only six percent of the pools had barrier fences. And only 4 percent had self-latching gates. Because pools are regarded as an attractive nuisance, those without barrier fences represent a serious threat to toddlers, especially those who are not being properly supervised.

Though not the primary focus of this study, water chemistry at a dozen pools was evaluated using a standard test kit to determine if they were being adequately disinfected. Of this small sample, only two pools had pH and chlorine levels considered acceptable by the CDC. Anyone in the pool industry knows what this means: Bathers are potentially being exposed to several serious illnesses resulting from waterborne disease transmission.

Lighting is another safety issue where pools failed miserably. Of the 42 pools that were evaluated using a light meter, only four had minimal lighting, and none had nighttime illumination that equaled or exceeded the 6 FC standard.  Without proper lighting, several life-threatening safety hazards and issues occur:

  • Pool warning signs and rules cannot be read.
  • Depth marker and “No Diving” logos cannot be seen.
  • The water depth cannot be accurately judged.
  • The subtle behaviors of drowning cannot be observed (Fletemeyer, 2013).

In summary, this study found that semiprivate pools located primarily in developing countries seldom comply with the United States safety standards recommended by ANSI and legislated, usually at the state level, except in the case of anti-entrapment measures that have become federal law.

In addition, few if any, pools in developing counties are periodically inspected for health and safety compliance issues. In the U.S., semipublic and public pools are inspected at least twice a year, usually unannounced. Without the benefit of site inspections, the opportunity for problems is dramatically increased.

Especially surprising was the fact that several of the pools in the study were owned by a large and highly respected hotel company with corporate headquarters in the U.S.

Though this firm’s pools located in the U.S. were in compliance, several of its pools in developing countries were not. Lighting was evaluated at four of this company’s pools, located in three developing countries. In all four cases, the lighting levels fell far below the minimum acceptable limit. Consequently, a serious spinal injury is waiting to happen at these pools. On the other hand, when lighting was evaluated at two pools belonging to the same U.S. resort company, the lighting was appropriate and exceeded the minimum. This finding suggests that double standards may exist in the hotel and resort industry.

Besides these issues, the subject of alcohol deserves discussion because anywhere from 30- to 50 percent of aquatic accidents are believed to be alcohol-related. In pools located at hotels and resorts in developing countries, not one observation was made showing alcohol was prohibited on the deck or in the pool. In fact, at most of the 86 pools studied, the consumption of alcohol was actively encouraged.

What this means

Hopefully, as an outcome of this study, the groundwork is being laid to improve pool safety overseas. As more and more Americans travel abroad for business and pleasure, pool safety will increasingly become an important issue. Having a safe pool to swim in often is taken for granted, but the findings of this study suggest it should not be.

An additional consideration: Students are especially vulnerable because recreational swimming usually is a big part of their lives. So staffs involved in school-sponsored programs should always be aware that hazards may exist and should warn their students to be careful, especially when swimming at night in a badly illuminated pool.

Owners and operators of pools everywhere, not just in the U.S., have a duty and responsibility to make their pools safe. They will not need to reinvent the wheel to accomplish this because ANSI guidelines are available, and the folks at the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals are always willing and eager to lend a helping hand.

Until pools start becoming a priority, never take pool safety for granted.