Tips for Staying Safe in the Water This Summer

Water safety tips

With beach and pool season in full swing, experts offer some guidance on water safety.  

Ten people die every day from unintentional drowning. In fact, drowning is the fifth-leading cause of unintentional injury death for people of all ages, and the second-leading cause of injury death among children ages 1 to 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Naturally, the risk for drowning or water-related injuries goes up during summer months, when pools open up and families flock to the beach. Here are a handful of important water safety tips to keep in mind for the summer.

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Safety starts at home

Especially for younger, non-swimming children who have pools in their backyards or in their neighborhood, it’s easy to escape their parents and get into trouble in the water, says Tom Griffiths, EdD, founder of the Aquatic Safety Research Group and former director of aquatics and safety officer for athletics at Penn State University for more than two decades.

“Parents need to remain vigilant of their children. It is also important to install as many layers of protection as possible if you have a backyard pool, including self-closing self-latching gates, a four-sided isolation barrier, and alarms and other technologies,” says Griffiths.

There are many other resources available for parents, such as Pool Safely (www.poolsafely.gov), and Colin’s Hope (www.colinshope.org.) 

See the signs

Serious adverse events can happen in the water in an instant, says Rachel Griffiths, communication director and West Coast representative and Dr. Griffiths’ colleague at the Aquatic Safety Research Group. 

“Drowning can be quick, quiet, and subtle and can take place in a matter of seconds. Tragically, for every child who experiences a fatal drowning event, five more children suffer the catastrophic effects of non-fatal drowning events which may last a lifetime,” says Griffiths. 

In addition to providing necessary layers of protection, it’s equally critical to acknowledge that drowning might not present clear, undeniable signs, she adds. 

“A child could look as though they are holding their breath or even underwater swimming. Additionally, we are all subject to cognitive blindfolds of denial and disbelief that often occur in drowning scenarios. People see what they want to see and don’t want to believe someone is truly drowning. They may think the child must be OK, just holding their breath or playing.” 

Signs of water distress

Drowning can happen in an instant, and the signs of someone struggling in the water might not always be immediately obvious. Cedars Sinai offers guidance on the signals to look for, such as:

  • Gasping for air
  • A weak swim stroke
  • Bobbing up and down in the water
  • Hair in the eyes
  • Swimming the wrong way in a current (or if in the ocean)
  • Hand waving or arms out to the sides
  • Swimmers floating face down

Cut down on distractions

Children must be supervised in and around the water. That said, even the most alert adult is subject to a lapse in concentration. Many drownings occur during these momentary lapses in supervision, says Dr. Griffiths, adding that always-evolving handheld technologies create even more distractions for parents and adults by the water. 

“People often underestimate how distracted they are, even if it’s just checking their phones momentarily,” he says. “All parents and supervisors should refrain from all phone use when watching children in the water. Also, assign a ‘water watcher,’ whose sole responsibility is to watch the children in, on and around the water.”

Use life jackets

Properly fitting, United States Coast Guard-approved life jackets “are the best life insurance policy” for weak and non-swimming children in swimming pools, says Rachel Griffiths, adding that other flotations and accessories should not be used for children who cannot yet swim. 

“Devices can be deceiving. Many devices, like water wings, swim vests and others look like they would help protect children in the water.”

Carefully read the labels on all such devices, she says. 

“A swim vest or other device that is not USCG-approved should state ‘not intended for safety.’ Ensure the label of a life jacket has the USCG seal of approval. Life jackets in swimming pools for non-swimmers not only significantly reduce in-water rescues by lifeguards, but also increase swim lessons enrollments at swimming pools.

In the open water and among boaters, swimmers need life jackets too and local regulations should be followed. 

Use the buddy system

Swimming alone is dangerous. Dr. Griffiths urges swimmers to swim with a partner or buddy. 

“No swimmer should swim alone in any setting. Even adept swimmers can get into trouble, especially in recreational waters such as beaches and lakes,” he says, adding that underlying health conditions can strike unexpectedly in the water.

Additionally, consider wearable or towable flags and life jackets or inflatable devices for open water swimming. Always swim near a lifeguard whenever possible. 

Be cautious about pool parties

It’s tempting to look at pool parties as a safe haven where several adults will be on hand to supervise. 

“In reality, the opposite is true,” says Rachel Griffiths. “The more adults you have around the pool, the more socializing and distractions you have, and as a result, we end up with double trouble instead of double coverage.”

Griffiths advises hiring lifeguards to focus exclusively on watching swimmers, and implementing additional layers of protections, such as life jackets and water watchers

“When teens or adults have a pool party, lifeguards should also be watching the water,” she says.

“Ideally, alcohol should not be involved, as alcohol can significantly increase the chances of catastrophic injuries and drownings. Diving should be discouraged, except in deep water.” 

Don’t be a bystander

In an emergency situation, individuals too often “look around to see how others are reacting to the situation, and assume that, if no one is helping yet, no help is needed,” says Dr. Griffiths. 

“However, the reality is many drownings are not spotted by the lifeguard first, even lifeguards are on duty,” he says, citing 2011 data

Griffiths urges parents and other adults to not rely strictly on lifeguards—or anyone else—to watch their children around the water. 

Ultimately, lifeguards save lives and are certainly a critical part of drowning prevention, but they simply can’t see everyone all the time, he says. 

“Vigilance is key, while keeping in mind potential pitfalls of missing a drowning. In addition to looking for signs of drowning (see sidebar), look for signs of life. You should see swimmers on the surface or surfacing frequently, breathing and making meaningful movement in the water. 

If any of these signs are not present, just go to assist them if alone, or alert a lifeguard immediately. When in doubt, check them out.” 

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