Kara Moss didn’t know she needed glasses until she applied to be a lifeguard.
“I always just thought that life was blurry after 15 feet,” said Moss, aquatic manager at the Gurnee Park District in Gurnee, Ill.
For a job that requires keen vision to spot trouble from a distance, her nearsightedness was going to be a setback. She failed the eye exam, but was granted another try with corrective lenses.
Today, Moss is administering the very test she initially failed more than 10 years ago. In Illinois, many park districts participate in a program that requires new and returning guards to have their vision checked before taking their posts.
Here’s how it works: An examiner – usually a district staff member – ask an applicant to read rows of letters on an eye chart 10 feet away. The results of the test are submitted online through a program called Guardvision to be interpreted and verified by a third party. Applicants will learn whether or not they passed, usually within 24 hours.
Conducting eye exams is just another part of preparing for the busy swim season ahead.
“It’s probably one of the easiest things we have to do,” Moss said.
It’s a service provided by the Park District Risk Management Agency (PDRMA), an intergovernmental risk pool that offers self-insured property, casualty and health coverage to approximately 80 agencies throughout the Prairie State. Vision screening is just one part of a comprehensive aquatic risk management program that also includes audits of facilities and lifeguards. About 4,300 guards have their eyes examined every season.
PDRMA implemented the vision screening process in 1995, following an investigation into a series of drowning deaths in the Chicago area involving people with dark complexions. They were found at the bottom of pools on or near lap lines.
Dr. Barry Seiller, an ophthalmologist, was tapped to investigate. He is the founder of the Visual Fitness Institute, a Vernon Hills, Ill.-based organization that works with athletes to test, train and improve their visual skills through its proprietary program called Visual Edge.
A pilot study found that one in 10 lifeguard candidates had sub-par vision, and one in six admitted to not wearing prescription eyewear.
While the Visual Fitness Institute couldn’t conclusively rule that the bodies were overlooked because of poor eyesight, it did learn that there were no consistent vision standards in the lifeguard industry. If there were standards, they weren’t being enforced, Dr. Seiller said. There was an exception, however. In some states where beach lifeguards double as peace officers, vision tests were required because they carry firearms.
Of the major certifying agencies, only Ellis & Associates requires guards that are a part of its Comprehensive Aquatic Risk Management Program to confirm that they have 20/25 vision. To put that into perspective, most states require a visual acuity of 20/40 to legally drive.
Still, eye exams are the exception, not the rule. Few lifeguard agencies outside of Illinois screen for vision.
Dr. Seiller, who developed Guardvision, tried to champion the program to the wider aquatics industry, but his efforts have been largely rebuffed. He recalled a time when he made a presentation to a lifeguard organization. He didn’t intend to stir controversy.
“There was a huge argument after the presentation between the people that were pro having your eyesight tested and the people who were against having your eyesight tested,” said Dr. Seiller.
This and other attempts have been met with resistance. The reason?
“It’s just another regulation. That was one of their concerns,” he said. “It’s another thing that has to be tested.”
But in a profession that vigorously enforces physical standards and vigilant scanning procedures, why should eyesight be overlooked? Some aquatics professionals believe it’s just not practical. Besides, many lifeguards have already obtained their drivers licenses by the time they enter the profession. If they can see well enough to drive, logic holds that they can see well enough to watch people in a swimming pool.
But Dr. Seiller holds lifeguards to a higher standard. He recommends a visual acuity of 20/30. That’s higher than the minimal standard to legally drive without corrective eyewear. In his view, 20/30 is not overly restrictive for a large pool of workers. It’s a standard many people can pass.
The ones who fail are typically too fashion conscious for glasses or simply don’t want to bother with contacts.
“We found, dealing with this younger population … they try to function without their corrective eyewear,” said Kathy Puchalski, vice president at Visual Edge.
The initial failure rate – meaning people who flunk but try again later with eyewear – is around seven percent. The vast majority of people who retake the test pass.
Thanks to Guardvision, Moss, the aquatics manager, knows precisely who among her staff should be wearing eyeglasses or contacts. Before lifeguards start their shifts, supervisors go through a checklist to ensure they’re equipped for the job. That includes uniform, sunscreen, water bottle, and, of course, corrective vision.
“We’ve made it another part of our pre-checks,” she said.
Beyond Guardvision, Dr. Seiller believes his Visual Edge Performance Trainer also is applicable to the lifeguard industry. The web-based program is used by more than a dozen Major League Baseball teams, and many other professional sports teams, to enhance an athlete’s ability to obtain and process visual information, a critical performance factor in just about every sport. Like a weight-training regimen for the eyeballs, it conditions recognition, depth perception, tracking, alignment and visual flexibility, or the ability to shift from distance to near and back again.
However, the program’s potential to boost the performance of elite lifeguards who participate in competitions, such as beach lifeguards – a market Dr. Seiller believes could benefit – has so far gone untapped.
That likely won’t change anytime soon.
Said Dr. Seiller: “I have a hard enough time just getting them to take the test.”