Six Steps To a Safer Pool

The Centers for Disease Control reports that 4,000 people drown every year in America and that most of these drownings are preventable. It's estimated that for every drowning there are four serious near-drowning accidents that require hospitalization of the patient. These facts indicate that drowning and near-drowning accidents exact an enormous emotional and economic toll on society. They also suggest that hospitality owners and operators must make a special commitment to ensure their pools and beaches are safe for guests.

Currently, there are a number of lawsuits pending that involve aquatic accidents and alleged negligence by the hotels and resorts where they occurred. While the outcome of these cases are not yet known, awareness of them should serve as a wake-up call for you to review your safety programs and to effect some changes.

It's important to note that the responsibility of guest safety is a two-edged sword and doesn't fall entirely in the lap of hotel owners and operators. Guests must assume at least some responsibility for their safety. For example, the consumption of alcohol is a factor in about 50 percent of drowning accidents. Consequently, the liability exposure of a hotel is significantly less and may not exist if a guest drowns while drinking.

Guests must also be held responsible for certain activities and actions that might lead to a water accident, including the failure to provide close supervision of minors, swimming after pool hours, swimming alone, ignoring warning signs and rules and engaging in reckless horse play.

I have been involved in aquatic safety for 30 years and to my chagrin I've discovered that management often lacks the necessary experience, knowledge and commitment to implement an adequate aquatic safety program. In many hotels and resorts I've evaluated, I find conspicuously posted signs that state, “No Lifeguard On Duty” or “Swim at Your Own Risk.” Despite what you might believe, these signs are not effective in preventing accidents and offer little if any help in defending a negligence suit.

Here are six aquatic safety recommendations for you to consider for your property or company:

  1. Conduct a comprehensive aquatic safety audit. The goal of this task is to inventory every aquatic safety hazard. It can be done by assembling a team consisting of the hotel's risk manager specialist and certain outside individuals, such as insurance underwriters, design engineers, code enforcement personnel and aquatic experts.

    If your hotel has a small, rectangular-shaped pool designed without a deep end, the audit is a relatively straightforward process that can be accomplished in only a couple of hours. However, if your hotel or resort has either a large pool with water features or a beach or both, identifying hazards can be much more difficult and require considerably more time and outside expertise to accomplish.

    Hotels and resorts located directly on the ocean have special considerations. Some owners and managers believe because the ocean and beach below the mean high water line is owned by a public entity, usually the state, their responsibility ends at this point. Not so. Because most hotels actively encourage the use of the beach and profit from renting chairs and recreational equipment, they owe a duty to their guests to warn them of any existing hazards that threaten their safety. The only exception is Hawaii, where it has been clearly established by the courts that all oceanfront property is publicly owned. It's worth noting that a few hotels have responded to this responsibility by providing beachfront lifeguards.

  2. Take action to remove hazards and in cases when this is not possible, provide appropriate warnings. The goal is to immediately remove any hazard you identify. Twenty years ago, one major swimming pool hazard was the diving board. Now, after years of lawsuits and many serious spinal injuries, one would be hard pressed to find a diving board at a hotel pool.

    In cases in which it's not possible to remove a hazard, be sure to use appropriate warning signs. However, this strategy can also be problematic for several reasons:

    • A phenomenon called sign pollution is sometimes responsible for reducing the effectiveness of signage.

    • Some guests from foreign countries can't read or understand English.

    • A significant percentage of the population is visually impaired and some are functionally illiterate, making reading and understanding signs difficult.

    Contributing to these problems is the fact that many aquatic hazards, especially those associated with the ocean, are temporary. For example, rip currents are responsible for many fatalities, and these insidious currents can materialize in just a moment. With these considerations in mind, the following recommendations should be followed when erecting warning signs on your premises:

    • Signs must comply with ANSI Specifications for Accident Prevention Signs (Z35.1.1973). These specifications define the sign's color, letter size and shape.

    • Signs should be strategically located, even if they are not aesthetically pleasing.

    • Signs should be periodically inspected and immediately replaced if they become damaged or weathered. Old signs with fading letters tend to be ignored by hotel patrons.

    • At hotels and resorts where there is a contingent of foreign guests, consider using warning logos instead of written signs.

    Sometimes in place of written warnings, it may make sense to use flag warning systems. For a flag system to be effective, however, it must be responsive to changing conditions. If the same flag is left flying day after day and if the conditions are changing, people begin to ignore it and eventually the flag system will be rendered meaningless. Also, flag warnings must be consistent. I've observed cases in which one type of flag system is used at one hotel and a different one is used at a neighboring property. This creates potential confusion among guests.

    Regarding the effectiveness of warnings, results of research I conducted in the Florida Panhandle are worth noting. I discovered that about 98 percent of respondents would respond to a red warning flag by staying out of the water. This research is significant because it empirically demonstrates that people respond to aquatic warnings if they are consistently designed, regularly updated and strategically located.

  3. Develop and implement a guest aquatic education safety program. This is especially important for hotels and resorts located on or near the ocean. Guests are usually not aware of the many types of marine hazards threatening their safety and of the relative significance of these hazards. For example, despite what most guests believe, sharks don't represent the most significant threat to human safety.

    Hotels and resorts must provide guests with safety information that may include the following: safety brochures, marine condition boards, in-house dedicated information phone lines with daily safety reports, and in-house, closed-circuit TV stations with safety recommendations.

  4. Develop an emergency action plan and rehearse it. An emergency action plan should include protocols for calling for 911, administering CPR and spinal injury management, and determining the most expeditious way for paramedics and ambulances to reach an injured guest. Also, a good emergency plan must have a clearly established chain of command and provide staff with a prioritized list of phone numbers and contact people, usually beginning with the hotel's general manager. Regarding emergency management plans, I can't overemphasize the importance of rehearsing and critiquing the plan. Practice makes perfect.

  5. Conduct periodic safety audits. Risk management must be considered an ongoing process because aquatic environments are never static. For this reason, it is necessary to conduct periodic safety audits. I recommend that you conduct these audits on a monthly basis with site inspections conducted daily, preferably in the early morning. Assign this task to a staff member who has experience in aquatics and be sure he or she records the results of the audits and inspections in a log or a report. Maintain these records for at least five years.

  6. Deploy an external automated defibrillator. External automated defibrillators (AEDs) have been responsible for saving the lives of many individuals involved in serious aquatic accidents. There is a four-minute window for defibrillating the heart to be successful. After this time, the survival rate drops precipitously. Because arrival of emergency first responders usually exceeds this crucial four-minute window, it's important to have an AED on site and for staff to be properly trained to use it.

I also recommend that every pool and beach have a dedicated, emergency 911 phone conspicuously located nearby. Regarding the use of AEDs, it's important that management realize that this equipment is extremely user-friendly and that the Good Samaritan Act usually protects staff who need to use it in an emergency.

Hotel management and staff must always give guest safety the highest priority. Swimming pools (especially large pools), spas and beaches represent areas where accidents are most likely to occur. Consequently, it's necessary to consider the six recommendations presented in this article designed to promote aquatic safety. Failure to do so may not only result in a serious, even fatal injury to a guest but may be responsible for a lawsuit that may be extremely difficult and costly to defend.

Dr. John Fletemeyer, president of Fort Lauderdale, FL-based Aquatic Safety, Research and Conservation, has 30 years of experience in professional aquatics. He has served as the chairman of the National Aquatics Coalition, national education chairman of the United States Lifesaving Association and vice chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. He can be reached at or 954-463-9000.

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Dr. Fletemeyer provides six crucial recommendations to improve the safety of hotel pool and beachfront areas:

  1. Conduct a comprehensive aquatic safety audit.

  2. Take action to remove hazards and in cases when this is not possible, provide appropriate warnings.

  3. Develop and implement a guest aquatic education safety program.

  4. Develop an emergency action plan and rehearse it.

  5. Conduct periodic safety audits.

  6. Deploy an external automated defibrillator.

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