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Aquatic or Water Feature Safety

By Arthur H. Mittelstaedt Jr., EdD, and Mr. Paul Bosch

Drowning accounts for about 3,600 deaths each year, and is the perennial fourth or fifth most common cause of accidental death. While the accident rate for other water features (ponds, water gardens, large fountains, falls, etc.) is low compared to swimming pools, designers can avoid some inherent hazardous of these water features. One factor--depth of the water feature--is critical in preventing drownings. Zero depth fountains are the safest, except for slips and slides that may occur. However, water at any depth can be dangerous depending upon the age, size and height of the user. An adult size person (one report said he was passed out drunk) finds this zero edge and shallow pool in Salt Lake City an inviting but perhaps deadly amenity.

A safe water-shape environment is critical to consumer satisfaction. Paul Bosch certified pond designer specialized in working with pond and water-shape designers, installers and builders has taken this effort on as both an advocate and a consultant. His work with pool designers and contractors generated the realization that with the great interest in ponds, waterfalls, water gardens and other water shapes also comes safety concerns. Pools have been vulnerable because of the increase in drownings and near drownings in above and in-ground pools as well as spas and waterslides. (Ed. note: According to a June 2007 report from The National Safety Council, accidental deaths in the U.S. have risen more than 20 percent over a 10-year period, reaching 113,000 deaths in 2005, per the latest data available. (See chart below.)

There is an obvious need to consider safety in shaping our waterscapes. Though there are no standards for water shapes, that could evolve. The new water play equipment and environment standards of ASTM has prompted the Aquatic Safety Services Group of the Recreation Safety Institute to produce a set of criteria used in pre-water shape design and installation and in postwater shape inspection. Mr. Bosch's experience in arbitration with the Recreation Safety Institute, with pool construction, as a deputy commissioner in a major Long Island town and with a pool contractor with a prominent Long Island company has provided a authoritative base for his business.

Water Feature Hazards (ponds, water gardens, large fountains, sprays or falls)

Water features can be inherently hazardous attractions, particularly to children who cannot swim and do not understand the dangers. Although hundreds of millions of people experience water features, which are increasingly popular throughout the United States, the accident rate for them is low compared to pools, water parks and lakes. Still, the number of accidents at water features can be reduced by eliminating certain prevalent hazards. A review of these hazards can save a life or prevent an injury.

The shape of a water feature can be hazardous, especially if it has sharp rock exposures, hidden alcoves with protrusions or entrapments where visibility is impaired in any way, or circulation of water is limited. Openness is important for safety surveillance.

The depth of the water feature is critical in preventing drownings. Zero depth fountains are the safest, except for slips and slides that may occur on "nonslip" surfaces. However, water at any depth can be dangerous depending upon the age, size and height of the user. Children are attracted to water and can easily fall in any type of water basin.

The slope of the bottom of the water shape basin does not have to be exceedingly steep to achieve the visual affects. A lesser slope is less hazardous, should someone trespass into the water and slip and fall. An accumulation of algae growth, dirt, and other slippery residue can cause recovery problems.

AIn designing water features, this column's author's suggest that ledges should not invite climbing upon unless they are slip resistant and the edges are illuminated. The terraced design for this 14-foot waterfall into the koi pond at a Texas Japanese water garden sure looks inviting to climb.

Water troughs or courses with abutting stones or decks that provide access points can provoke a child to play with the water or enter the water. This type of design can lead to trouble and should not exist.

The edges of recesses or the perimeter of the water shape should not be sharp and irregular as to cause contusions if an arm or leg did encounter the edge upon falling or sliding.

It's important to place safety placards with NO DIVING dictographs or decals at readily accessible edge areas that may be susceptible to water entry or shallow dives.

The ledges around water shapes should not invite climbing upon unless they are slip resistant and the edges are illuminated.

Ground fault protection is necessary if the water feature has lighting or other effects. The National Electrical Code states that any device exceeding 12 volts within 15 feet of water must have such a detector.

Water entry sensors are excellent features that detect if anybody is entering a water shape or feature.

A safety light to illuminate the area when lighting is turned off can provide necessary security illumination.

A surveillance device and a security patrol routine should be established to check the pool in public areas.

Emergency lights in indoor and outdoor pools illuminate the water attraction should a power failure occur.

Water rescue equipment should be conspicuously, but strategically, located in proximity to public water displays with water pools or basins.

There should be an emergency access and vehicle route to the water feature, should EMS access be necessary.

An emergency phone or radio should be on hand with emergency numbers listed.

Railings over bridges and along paths adjacent to the water are necessary to conform to codes. A city code may also treat a water feature as a pool and require a barrier of chain link, mesh or other inaccessible perimeter fencing to prevent entry by children.

Irregularity of natural step risers and treads with narrowing ends is a hazard even if in a natural setting.

Slippery surface conditions of steps and walks and natural landings or platforms should be prevented with a nonslip material and treatment.

With such a list of hazards you might ask how can the theme of natural water environments be maintained? Such water shapes are not swimming or other forms of active pools. The intent of waterscape design is a visual experience, but the public often goes beyond such visual sense to engage all the other senses. In essence, not to play off a pun, they get immersed in the experience of water environments. This becomes the problem that has to be considered in the design. Such solutions as providing plant and irregular stone barriers along a watercourse can discourage access to the water.

Simple artistically designed signage depicting the design theme can also host warnings. Employees and security personnel alert to peoples' behavior and particularly children's, can quickly head off problems.

Ponds or other designed water shapes are inherently hazardous because of the water element. Water shape designers have to be considerate of safety of such environments as does any other designer of user built environments, particularly if near playgrounds.

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December 14, 2019, 8:05 am PDT

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