Pool Safety Don’t Let an Amenity Become a Liability

According to the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals (APSP), there are 10.4 million residential and 309,000 public swimming pools in the United States. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an agency that is independent of the US government, states that despite the numbers being down 11 percent nationwide since 2010, “Between 2013 and 2015, an estimated 5,600 children under 15 years old were treated each year in hospital emergency rooms for non-fatal drownings in pools or spas.”

Numbers this large suggest that despite stricter laws and regulations around pools, there’s a great deal of work still to be done to ensure that owners and operators of spas and pools fully understand the responsibilities that come with maintaining these sources of summer fun. Various people, groups, organizations and governmental entities at every level from international to local have introduced or implemented an abundance of measures to better protect the public from accidents like unintentional drowning, one of the leading causes of death for children under 15 years old.

Virginia Graeme Baker

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), an advocate for safety measures to reduce child fatalities in her state of Florida due to unintentional drowning, partnered with Nancy Baker in the early 2000s to work on improving pool safety. Baker, an advocate of pool and spa safety had been hard at work lobbying Congress in hopes of passing legislation to require anti-entrapment drain covers for pools, spas and hot tubs, as well as other safety devices.  In an instance of unimaginable tragedy, Nancy lost her seven-year-old daughter Virginia in June of 2002 due to an accident wherein the little girl’s hair became tangled in an unprotected hot tub drain, drowning her. Virginia’s death  – and the determination of her mother and Schultz – resulted in the introduction and subsequent inclusion of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act (VGB Act) in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) as Title XIV. After the VGB Act was passed, manufacturers were required to make various pool devices follow standards of both including unblockable drain covers and installing safety vacuum release systems to prevent tragedies like the one that befell Virginia. 

Pool Laws

Everything about a pool – from from the building materials and construction to the various equipment and chemicals used in them – are subject to the scrutiny of numerous regulatory entities to make sure that owners, operators and contractors adhere to all laws and regulations set forth by the federal, state and local governments.  

One such entity is the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which, along with the 50 state attorneys general, has jurisdiction over thousands of consumer products, including many aspects involved with pools, spas, and hot tubs. The laws and regulations that govern pools and spas do not stop just there. As a result of the Virginia Graeme Baker tragedy, the aforementioned EISA called upon the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) as well as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) to formulate standards that manufacturers of pool devices must also comply with. 

The ANSI and ASME both oversee the development of voluntary consensus standards for areas such as personnel, products, systems, services and processes, and also coordinate with international standard-setting bodies so that products made in the USA can be used all over the world. In the context of swimming pools, these standards also deal with hygiene. In addition to drain covers, suction pumps, and other mechanical elements, the chemicals added to water to kill bacteria and prevent algae growth must also be monitored and regulated to ensure their proper use and handling. 

In addition to all this, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also has a say in the regulations aimed at those using pool or spa chemicals. For instance, a manufacturer’s label cannot be altered in any way, and it must remain on its respective container. The safety data sheets that accompany the chemicals must also be kept intact and readily available, and employees must be given properly working protective gear and trained to handle chemicals safely. 

Pool Responsibility

With great amenities comes great responsibility. In the case of swimming pools, this means visits from health officials to ensure compliance with the law; making sure that proper insurance is purchased; seeing to it that the pool itself and the area immediately surrounding it is kept clean, safe, and hygienic. 

Obviously, the safety of residents and their guests comes first, before all other considerations. Depending on whether a pool is public or privately owned, safety measures may be mandatory and required by law, or may be more like voluntary guidelines. Installing anti-entrapment drain covers is an example of a federally-mandated safety measure, while other safety-related considerations, like door alarms and the presence of or height of fences surrounding the pool area may in fact be optional in some municipalities. The presence of lifeguards can also vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, with some states requiring a lifeguard to be present when children under 16 years old are using the pool without adult supervision. In some places, this requirement can be bypassed – and liability shifted to the pool user – by posting specific signage announcing the absence of a lifeguard, but it’s vital to consult your own legal and insurance pros to make sure your building or HOA isn’t exposing itself to major risk.

“Property managers should always have a professional regularly inspect the pool for entrapment or entanglement hazards.” says Christopher J. Strzalka, president of Aqua-Guard Management, Inc in Schaumburg, Illinois. 

Just because a safety measure isn’t required by law doesn’t mean it can just be skipped over, however. According to Strzalka, “The basic safety measure is to have the proper equipment—and this means the pool needs to be equipped with several layers of protection.  This includes lighting, fencing, winter covers, pool and door alarms, pool dividing rope with floats and an outside telephone for emergencies. The fencing should utilize gates that self-close and self-latch, and the latches should be higher than a child’s reach. After the pool is closed, the pool should be secured so children can’t get back into it. Most young children who drown in pools wander into the pool area after it is closed and fall in.  As the last layer of protection, keep rescue equipment (such as a shepherd’s hook or ring buoy with throw rope) and a telephone by the pool.” 

C’mon In, the Water is Fine

Drowning of course is the first danger people tend to think of when it comes to pools, but hygiene and water quality aren’t far behind. Maintaining proper pH balance is crucial not only for the safety of swimmers, but also to keep pumps, filters, and other mechanical components functional and free of corrosion. 

According to John Dugan, VP of Manhattan Pool and Leisure in New York City, monitoring proper chemical levels is a huge component of swimming pool management. “So many things can go wrong with improper chemical levels,” Dugan says. “To start, all local and state Department of Health (DOH) agencies have their requirements for what those levels should be. The national standard is based on the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC). There are a lot of factors that need to be constantly monitored. The Cl2 and the pH is the main component for proper pool balancing in regards to hygiene. The other listed components help maintain the Cl2 and pH levels, as well as keep a pool properly balanced and non-corrosive.”

“Without proper Cl2 levels bacteria and pathogens can grow quickly in a pool and make it dangerous to bathers,” Dugan continues. “The pool filtration system should also be up to date and to code. A good Certified Pool Operator (CPO) knows the limits of his filtration systems and should know when repairs and maintenance should be made. Anyone can keep a pool balanced and cleaned for a period of time; the real challenge and skill comes when pools have high bather loads and are larger in size. In my opinion, the best method of operation is to properly maintain a healthy and safe pool by stressing preventative maintenance – like keeping up on chemicals and cleaning filters before it becomes an issue. Once you start down a path of filtration issues or improper balancing, it can quickly spiral out of control, and someone can get sick.”

Insurance and Licensure

Depending on the state – or even the county – in which your community is located, certain licenses and certificates are required to operate a pool legally. The APSP offers certification courses to help pool operators get proficient in pool safety and legal issues. The certified pool operator (CPO) certificate offered through the APSP has protected many swimmers by promoting best practices and making property managers, boards, and maintenance staff members aware of the hazards that can result from an improperly-run pool facility. 

Because of the numerous entities both governmental and not, swimming pools and spas are subject to being inspected by health officials “A proper inspection and maintenance plan by trained professionals is the first step and essential to operating and maintaining a safe pool environment,” says Strzalka. “It starts with the opening of the pool, runs through the entire season and ends with the pool’s closing. The local county and state Health Department should perform an inspection for the annual swimming pool license. Items from this inspection need to be corrected before the following years license is approved.” 

And of course, there’s the issue of liability and proper insurance coverage. According to Michael J. Zuchelli, VP of Elite Pool & Fitness Management, Inc. in Whitestone, New York, “The insurance implications of having a pool at your property comes down to exposure; a larger swimming pool oftentimes correlates with larger exposure. Indoor swimming pools often cater to lap swimmers and incremental usage, where as outdoor facilities typically accommodate sunbathers, children, and retirees for hours at a time.” The type of pool you have, as well as the extras offered in the pool area, such as diving boards, hot tubs, and so forth, will come to bear on how much insurance your particular facility requires, as well as how much that coverage will cost. 

Between supervision, signage, maintaining chemical levels, and periodic inspections, the prospect of maintaining a safe, clean, up-to-code pool might be enough to make busy boards and managers wonder if it’s all worth it. Fortunately, there’s professional help available to shoulder some of the more technical aspects of the task. 

“Many properties have found a reduction in insurance costs when hiring an amenity management company to manage HOA amenities, shifting the burden of liability from the HOA to the management company,” says Zuchelli. “Amenity management companies can often obtain all the permits and licenses necessary to operate an HOA swimming pool. This takes the guesswork out of operating and maintaining your pool, and allows the HOA board members and property managers the peace of mind so they can kick back and enjoy their amenity space.” 

Whether you’ve got a modest little hot tub in your clubhouse or an Olympic-sized outdoor pool, keeping users safe and your facility in good repair are crucial to maintaining an attractive, valuable amenity from becoming a liability. Knowing and enforcing the rules, and hiring competent, knowledgeable pool pros are key to doing just that, and will ensure that your pool is fun and inviting for years to come.        

Oba Gathing is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Cooperator. 

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