In America, 15-year-olds aren’t allowed to do much, at least not legally. They can’t drive. They can’t drink. And they can’t vote. But thanks to the extraordinary efforts of an industry coalition, they can now do something with vastly more responsibility and consequence: save lives.

After heavy lobbying from all major aquatics groups, the U.S. Department of Labor agreed to change its stance on workplace rules and allow 15-year-old lifeguards at waterparks. Many industry professionals are cheering Labor’s decision.

I am not.

While I applaud the groups for setting aside their differences and working toward a common goal, I think that energy was put into the wrong place. It seems to me this group should have used its collective might to create incentives that attract more qualified lifeguards, not convince the government that adolescents should be allowed to shoulder a responsibility few adults can handle.

I know such a stance runs counter to the business of aquatics. Many operators might argue that they simply can’t afford to pay the wages required to attract and keep more mature guards. After all, it’s often only a part-time gig with few benefits, other than a killer tan. Budgets can only be stretched so far.

When you consider the inherent risks of 15-year-old lifeguards — not to mention the liability — that argument seems weak at best. At 15, kids are still developing. They are often shy, self-conscious and unassertive. Hardly the qualities you want for a person in authority, let alone one with the responsibility to save lives. Yes, training can make a difference. And, yes, even the youngest guards can save lives.

But can we really tell patrons we’re offering the safest level of service when we hire such inexperienced guards? Can a multimillion-dollar industry truly claim it can’t afford to pay what it might take to recruit and hire older, more experienced guards? The United States Lifeguarding Association, for one, would say, “no.” It recommends a minimum age of 16. Many organizations set higher standards. In San Diego, for instance, beach guards must be 18. Furthermore, the city hasn’t had a problem finding and keeping such lifeguards, largely because the pay is better.

The rest of the industry should take note.


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Credit: Gary Thill