Fractured skulls, amputated feet and bruised vertebrae. Not exactly the stuff of waterpark promotional brochures, but they all happened on water rides in the United States and Canada. And they all made quite a splash in local and even national media.

Headlines such as “Boy’s Feet Amputated After Waterslide Accident,” and “Girl Knocked Unconscious at Six Flags” create the kind of word of mouth marketers dread and attorneys love.

But many of these injuries could have been avoided if the person running the ride — typically a young operator— had been better trained. In fact, the girl whose face was all but shattered was the victim of a water ride operator who sent her down the slide too soon. She and her brother slammed into her dad at the bottom of the slide.

The waterpark industry has made it very clear that it intends to continue to employ 15-year-old lifeguards. In this issue of Aquatics International, writer Rin-rin Yu offers an in-depth look at the pros and cons of doing so. I disagree with the practice of hiring such very young people for such very important positions of responsibility. But I can respect its economic and staffing reasons.

What I can’t respect, and what no one in the industry should tolerate, is hiring very young workers and then failing to train them properly. When it comes to waterparks, that training goes beyond the ultimate responsibility of lifeguarding. It also includes the equally daunting responsibility of operating rides properly — of paying attention to what’s going enough to know when it’s safe to send another rider down the slide.

This seems to be where training is lacking. Rigid standards exist for the various levels of lifeguard training, but there’s no equivalent for sending someone screaming down a slide at 60 mph.

Manufacturers provide specific operational instructions for each ride, and training organizations suggest general safety practices. But actual training depends on the park and the person who ends up showing the new person the ropes. If that person wasn’t trained well or doesn’t know how to train, the cycle continues and accidents happen.

It’s time to break that cycle. The waterpark industry should band together and create meaningful training and operational standards for water rides. It should then make sure that those standards are followed and invest in proper training techniques. The whole endeavor could become a marketing boon for parks that display the Water Ride Operational Standards seal of approval (or some such name) at their facility. It could also be a business opportunity for an organization willing and able to tackle the problem.

Such standards and training would go a long way toward fending off lawsuits if and when accidents do occur — and creating positive new headlines for a change. How about: “Waterparks Enjoy Another Injury Free Summer”?


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Credit: Gary Thill