Aquatics Facilities Require Solid Risk Management Plans

Spring break usually brings to mind thoughts of sun and fun, but a Spring Break Escape camp turned tragic this March when 4-year-old Advait Gopan nearly drowned at Omni 41 Health and Fitness Connection in Schererville, IN. He was found under water in the shallow end of the club's pool, then died two days later at a hospital in nearby Chicago. The death was later ruled an accidental drowning.

The incident happened during an open swim session, Omni 41 spokeswoman Maria Ramos told local media. She said several counselors, who were in the pool area with campers when the episode occurred, attempted to resuscitate Gopan until firefighters arrived.

Though the adult health club normally admitted kids only during designated weekend family times, Gopan was one of several children enrolled in the facility's spring break camp.

“I don't know if all the kids were swimming at the time, or just some of them were in the pool, but when you get very young children in pools, you need to be extra vigilant,” says Jeffrey J. Kroll, principal attorney at the Law Offices of Jeffrey J. Kroll in Chicago. “I don't know all the facts, but to me, what makes it worse is that this isn't a situation where someone jumped over the fence and was swimming after hours. This person was invited and paid fees, so the danger was foreseeable.”

As the Omni 41 tragedy demonstrates, drownings can occur at pools at any time of the year. But as summer arrives, more fitness facility operators are preparing their outdoor pools by coming into compliance with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act (see story on page 26), ramping up their aquatics programming and training additional lifeguards. During this seasonal upswing, the potential dangers and liabilities involved with swimming pools make aquatics risk management an important area of focus. Aquatic facility risks, such as drowning and recreational water illness (RWI), can leave a club vulnerable to lawsuits and underline the importance of having a solid risk management plan.

“If people are not aware of risk, it's like playing Russian roulette — it's just a matter of time before something goes wrong,” says Thomas Lachocki, CEO for the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), which offers the “Pool and Spa Operator Handbook,” an educational resource for aquatics operators. To reduce or stop losses, the NSPF encourages pool operators to have a firm risk management plan in place.

Alex Antoniou, NSPF director of educational programs, adds, “Often, facilities neglect or ignore potential hazards, and most of the time, nothing happens. But sometimes something does happen, and they have to close, or legal issues become involved, or even worse, someone dies.”

Drowning Precautions

Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional, injury-related death among children ages 1 to 14 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than one in four fatal drowning victims are children ages 14 and under. In 2005, there were 3,582 unintentional drowning deaths in the United States — an average of 10 deaths per day.

Many health clubs have unattended pools, which can elevate the risk of drowning accidents, says Carvin DiGiovanni, senior technical director, standards, for the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals (APSP).

“Unattended pools pose a high risk of potential problems because bathers become docile, especially when it comes to watching kids,” says DiGiovanni. “The education of bathers to constantly supervise children is important.”

The APSP is one of three organizations sponsoring National Water Safety Month in May, an event designed to educate the public and prevent drowning, injuries and water-related illnesses.

When club owners try to save money by not hiring lifeguards, the decision could backfire, Antoniou says. He notes that the underlying cause of drowning is often the result of inadequate supervision, or the absence of lifeguards.

“If you're doing certain things to save money, in the long run, they can cost you more,” Antoniou says.

A CDC working group found that three quarters of the drownings at U.S. Lifesaving Association (USLA) sites (ocean beaches, lakes and rivers) occurred when no lifeguards were on duty. By contrast, the chance of drowning at a site with a trained lifeguard on duty is less than 1 in 18 million.

Antoniou also asserts that having a well-documented emergency plan in place and training staff to use that plan can help prevent drowning accidents and liability issues.

At Genesis Health Clubs in Wichita, KS, Aquatics Director Tara Murphy says the aquatics staff reviews the company's emergency action plan during lifeguard meetings at the start of the swim season. The staff also is trained to file incident reports in case an accident occurs.

During swim lessons at The Club at Ricochet, South Plainfield, NJ, lifeguards are on duty, even though the instructors themselves are certified lifeguards, says Aquatics Director Dawn Willemson. She also conducts in-service training for the club's staff four times a year.

Signage that outlines pool rules for members and helps educate them about water safety also can protect clubs from liability. The Club at Ricochet has one indoor pool that is 25 yards long and 4 feet deep. In several locations throughout the pool area, the club posts signs prohibiting diving, since the pool is fairly shallow, as well as signs noting general pool rules.

Antoniou suggests educating members about swim safety.

“Historically, people tend not to read signs, but you can't go without them because if something happens and you don't have them, it could be perceived as failure to warn,” he says.

Antoniou also recommends publishing aquatics safety rules in club newsletters to educate members, or making them part of the facility's member agreement terms. Some nonprofit facilities, such as the Parkwood YMCA in East Lansing, MI, schedule Swim Safe family events to educate patrons about pool safety and proper child supervision.

The Chelsea Piers Sports Complex in New York City has an emergency plan for the pool facility staff, as well as the entire entertainment complex, says Bill Gordon, director of operations. Chelsea Piers also recently installed no-slip matting around its pool area to minimize the risk of falls on the tile pool deck.

Precautions, such as the no-slip matting, surveillance cameras and better facility design, are helping keep pool-related insurance claims at a steady level industry-wide, says Ken M. Reinig, senior vice president, Association Insurance Group, Kennesaw, GA.

Reinig also notes that insurance companies serving health clubs normally do not require that lifeguards be on duty unless it's mandated by local laws. K&K Insurance Group only requires lifeguards if pools have diving boards or slides, says Lorena Hatfield, marketing resources manager.

Next Page: RWI Risks

Previous Page: Drowning Precautions

RWI Risks

Recreational water illness (RWI) also is a potential liability for pool operators. Waterborne germs, such as Cryptosporidium (Crypto), Giardia and Shigella, can cause diarrhea as well as infections of the skin, ears, respiratory system and eyes, according to the CDC.

Crypto outbreaks are on the rise in recent years. The CDC reports that the number of annual Crypto outbreaks increased from nine during 1997-1998 to 31 outbreaks in 2005-2006. The 2005-2006 outbreaks involved 3,751 people, and 99 percent of those outbreaks occurred in treated water venues.

Crypto outbreaks are especially worrisome for pool operators because Crypto is very resistant to chlorine, says Mary O. Wykle of MY Associates, Fairfax, VA, and author of “Aqua Therapy Risk & Training for Therapists.”

Lachocki says, “One of the challenges in our society is that anything that happens has the potential for litigation, and RWI is absolutely open for litigation. There was a large outbreak in 2005 in New York where a class-action lawsuit was brought against the parks and rec department, and unfortunately, once a lawsuit is filed in a certain area, if someone wins, it alerts other attorneys of the potential.”

In late summer of 2005, nearly 4,000 people fell ill after visiting the water spray park at Seneca Lake State Park in New York. Crypto was found in storage tanks that supplied water to the spray park. A class-action lawsuit was filed against the state of New York by 2,500 of those affected. The suit is still in the judicial system.

A similar Crypto case in Utah during 2007 sickened nearly 2,000 swimmers. Local health officials decided to ban children under age 5 from all public pools, including those at health club facilities.

“With the Utah outbreak, they banned young children because they're mainly how outbreaks happen. Thankfully, it was at the end of the season because then parents said it was discrimination,” says Wykle. “Banning people from the pool is not the way to go with control. No matter what group of people, education is the key to preventing outbreaks. Educate your staff and educate the users.”

The CDC sponsored the fifth annual RWI Prevention Week May 18-24 to raise public awareness about safe swimming and hygiene. A public awareness toolkit is available online (see sidebar).

Murphy used the CDC materials to promote RWI awareness to Genesis Health Club members last year.

“We posted fliers and posters on Crypto outbreaks in both locker rooms — those were fantastic. They were easy-to-read and very colorful,” she says.

Murphy notes that pool operators in the Wichita area also keep in contact via e-mail to stay informed about regional RWI outbreaks. The NSPF also has an outbreak alert notification system in place (see sidebar).

To avoid RWI outbreaks, Wykle says it's important to educate members about basic hygiene and to enforce pool rules.

“The basic rules are to take a soap shower before you get into a pool, though few pools enforce any kind of shower,” Wykle says. “Or if people use the bathroom, they should take a shower and wash their hands. Crypto can be contained by improving body hygiene. People also shouldn't swallow recreational water.”

Wykle notes that changing a baby's diaper on the pool deck also can spread germs, and that club pools that host a large number of children are most vulnerable to RWI.

“It's a bigger issue with more kids at our pool,” says Willemson. “Waterborne illness spreads so quickly. We have signs that say people with certain types of illnesses can't swim, such as people with gastrointestinal illnesses, though we really can't enforce that. We try to get out information to our patrons. I want parents to be aware that they need to take preventative action for their kids.”

Since many fitness facilities outsource pool maintenance, it's important that club management remain informed about RWI issues, says Lachocki.

“One of the biggest challenges in the aquatic operator field is that many facilities don't have trained and certified operators on staff. Thirty out of 50 states don't require certified pool professionals,” Lachocki says.

Many aquatics training options, such as the NSPF's “Pool Operator Primer,” are now offered online to assist health club owners and other small business owners in keeping current with government pool compliance and safety issues.

If club owners with pools hire outside maintenance companies, they should still ensure that employees are trained in risk management and local legal codes in case a situation happens at their club, Antoniou says.

“The service company is not onsite 24 hours a day,” he notes. “Having people trained at the facility will help if anything arises when the service company is not onsite. And even if you call them when something does happen, there's a big delay before they will arrive.”

In addition to training staff in emergency response, Antoniou also recommends checking the credentials of the maintenance company before hiring it to be sure it has proper certifications and licenses.

Besides causing member illness, a RWI outbreak can negatively affect a club's bottom line, Wykle notes.

“All it's going to take is one outbreak for members to cancel their memberships,” Wykle says. “Also, once the word is out in the community — you don't want to go to that facility — recruiting new members is going to be difficult. That's the main way it's going to impact revenue because everyone's out to attract new members.”

So whether it's to reduce the risk of retention problems or to prevent potential legal liabilities, club operators should have a firm risk management plan in place, train employees on its execution and educate patrons about the part they play in pool safety.

Online Aquatics Resources

National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF) educational training materials

Recreational Water Illness


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