In the past 25 years, the aquatics industry progressed from addressing basic safety issues to fine-tuning and tackling back-burner-type hazards that had not yet received widespread attention.
Besides transforming the lifeguarding profession and vigorously attacking recreational water illnesses, the industry changed diving practices, saw the passage of a federal safety law aimed at entrapment and, most recently, has begun to study shallow-water blackout.
Since the 1980s, changes have been made in the name of diving safety. As designers and operators of aquatics facilities became more aware of accidents, moves were made to deepen the water near diving boards.
“One of the amazing things I have found going back to some of the older pools is, we were diving off 3-meter-high boards into 9 feet of water, which we would never think about doing these days,” says Terry Brannon, president of The Brannon Corp., an engineering and consulting firm based in Tyler, Texas.
To keep divers from hitting their heads on the pool floor, depths were dropped to as much as 16.5 feet, the recommended number for a 10-meter platform.
But many operators, especially in the 1990s, decided to take a more radical approach and remove the boards, particularly the 3-meter models, altogether. This wasn’t done only to prevent diving accidents, but also falls onto the deck.
In addition, the sport made a big change to the way athletes enter the water. Previously, a competitive swimmer would dive every time he or she entered the pool, whether it be for practice or warm-up. Now, swimmers must enter feet first, except during competition or while doing sprints at the end of a warm-up.
“It’s very difficult to change behavior,” says Tom Griffiths, founder of the Aquatic Safety Research Group in State College, Pa. “I’d say there are two groups in my lifetime who’ve really changed behavior — Mothers Against Drunk Driving and U.S. Swimming,who have literally changed the way competitive swimmers enter the water.”
While the 1980s were a time of fixing larger-scale problems, the 1990s and beginning of this century have been devoted to addressing issues that have been around a long time but didn’t receive as much attention because they caused fewer injuries.
Suction entrapments occurred, but were so rare that the problem wasn't well known. Over time, as designers and manufacturers became more aware, they developed solutions. Configuring the circulation system with multiple main drains gradually became standard practice among reputable designers. And a technology called a safety vacuum release system began to be used. An SVRS is designed to interrupt a vacuum that has formed, allowed an entrapped individual to become free.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission acknowledged the problem of entrapment in 1998, suggesting that pools be built with dual drains and a secondary means of protection. California was the first state to address this problem in 1997, when it passed legislation stating that new pools must be built with dual main drains.
Then, in 2002, the 7-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker died after becoming stuck to a drain inside an inground, residential spa. Five years later the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act was passed.
VGBA requires every commercial pool and spa to have entrapment-proof drain covers and at least one additional safeguard, whether it be multiple main drains, an SVRS or other approved method. Though the number of entrapments has not gone down — 2011 saw nine, the same number reported in 1999 — there were no fatalities reported in 2009, 2010 or 2011, giving professionals hope.
Now, facilities are working on another hazard that has existed for decades: shallow-water blackout. SWB occurs when a swimmer is underwater holding his or her breath for a prolonged time, causing a shortage of oxygen to the brain and blacking out. Generally, these episodes are preceded by hyperventilation, which reduces carbon dioxide in the body and, thus, its normal reflex to seek air before passing out. Some say the blackout can become a drowning in as little as 2½ minutes, rather than the normal five because of the initial shortage of oxygen in the body.
“Shallow-water blackout has been around a long time,” says aquatic consultant and expert witness Alison Osinski, president of Aquatic Consulting Services in Avalon, Calif. “I’ve been working on shallow-water drowning cases for 30 years. Now, there’s just more awareness of the problem.”
The aquatics industry has begun exploring ways to avoid this problem, with experts recommending that breath-holding techniques only be used under controlled circumstances, and that swimmers avoid hyperventilating before entering the water. They also recommend signage that prohibits breath holding at pools.