With the popularity of tattoos and piercings at an all-time high a 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 24 percent of respondents had tattoos and 14 percent had body piercings most operators today are likely to have at least a few guards with some form of body art.

In other professions, clothing can cover body art, but in aquatics it becomes apparent. Perhaps more importantly, it poses significant risks. Piercings that protrude from the body can get caught on rescue equipment or in the hands of drowning victims, and new tattoos carry the same health risks as open wounds.

These are the main concerns of the American Red Cross, said Connie Harvey, project manager of aquatics technical development at the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. In its training literature, the Red Cross specifically warns against fresh tattoos and wearing jewelry. ?For us, it?s a safety issue,? Harvey said.

Eric Anderson, a former lifeguard and now outreach coordinator for the Association of Professional Piercers, a Lawrence, Kan.-based trade organization, agreed. ?Knowing what it takes to be part of an aquatic staff, I think the main concern is safety,? he said. ?[Body art or piercings] aren?t a bad thing; therefore, employers should treat anyone with jewelry or body art normally. It?s one of those things that can be scary if you don?t know anything about it.?

So how is the industry dealing with these concerns? What?s appropriate?

According to experts, the answer is policy. In a 2006 survey of human resource professionals from the Society for Human Resource Management, 22 percent of respondents said they have either formal or informal policies regarding body art, and 36 percent reported having policies on piercing.

?Staff are going to be tattooed and/or pierced, and managers need to have a plan in place on how to objectively and consistently deal with the issue,? said Shawn DeRosa, J.D., president of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting. ?I think [most operators] know that if they ban tattoos, they won?t have lifeguards.?

Operators without such a policy may be forced to react to a specific person?s choice, and ?publicly employed lifeguards may be able to raise First Amendment freedom of speech issues and wrongful or discriminatory termination claims,? DeRosa said.

As operators set and enforce policies on body modification, they should recognize employees? feelings, Anderson noted. ?A lot of people really get connected to their body art and [it can be] a very sensitive issue because [people with tattoos and piercings] are used to getting singled out,? he said. ?But it?s just a different application of body modification, [like getting a nose job].?

What about public image? Is having a staff of tattooed lifeguards going to hurt credibility with patrons? DeRosa doesn?t think so. ?Now that we?re seeing it in other professions, it?s become more accepted,? he said.

But not everywhere.

?We don?t allow [visible] tattoos,? said Lori Thompson, aquatics manager at Splash! La Mirada (Calif.) Regional Aquatics Center. ?[Our staff] has to cover them.? Though it?s only about an hour?s drive south of Los Angeles, Thompson said her Southern California community is a conservative enclave. She said staff policies on body art reflect that atmosphere.

As a result, several of the guards at her facility often are seen with sport brace-style bandages around wrists and ankles, two popular areas for tattoos. Others wear oversized T-shirts and even long-sleeve rash guards to cover their body art.

Thompson makes the policy clear at the testing day orientation session for prospective guards and said she has extended it to guests in at least one case. A male patron was asked to either cover up a potentially offensive tattoo or leave the facility.

While it?s the responsibility of the operator to set and enforce policies, Anderson added that, ?It?s the responsibility of the applicant to know whether there are policies and procedures, what they are, and to be open to under-standing that they are for safety reasons.?