Risk & Opportunity at Public Pools: Know the Safety Issues to Prevent Harm and Avoid Liability

By Roper, Paree | Public Management, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Risk & Opportunity at Public Pools: Know the Safety Issues to Prevent Harm and Avoid Liability


Roper, Paree, Public Management


A safe and well-run aquatic facility can be a source of pride as well as a revenue generator for a community. As the visible face of local government, a manager deals with the high expectations for service that citizens demand and works hard to enhance the quality of life for citizens who are served. Risk management is a discipline that affects every single department within an entity--whether it is safety, insurance coverage, worker's compensation, or special events.

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Risk management, however, is about more than just safety and insurance. Managers can use it as a tool for setting goals and responding to the various wants and needs of a community. This article examines some of the safety and liability issues to consider when building, renovating, or maintaining swimming pools and other aquatic facilities.

Safety, Liability, and Insurance Issues

Risk management: a strategy developed to reduce or control the chance of harm or loss; the process of identifying, evaluating, selecting, and implementing actions to eliminate or reduce harm.

--Definition from the Public Risk Management Association (PRIMA) glossary

Swimming is one of the most popular sports in America. Such athletes as Michael Phelps have raised the profile of aquatics even higher with record-breaking Olympic wins and greater attention paid to issues like swimsuit aerodynamics. Facilities have also undergone tremendous changes--gone are the days when a community could dig a hole, put in a pool, and call it a job well done.

In today's world, constituents want variety. Age-appropriate components and equipment that accommodates people with various levels of ability must be considered when designing, building, or renovating a pool or aquatic facility. In any given community, one may find shallow water and beach areas for youngsters, therapy pools for seniors, competition swimming for the future Olympians, and such features as water slides and special areas for inner tubes and floating. Entities can also include pavilions for social events and attractive aesthetics as drawing cards for customers.

With all these potential needs and demands to consider, the key is to think of risk management in terms of a strategy. By using a strategy of consciously understanding inherent risks of an issue, more data become available and better choices can be made. This is by no means asking managers to become risk managers per se--unless it is part of their job description--but it does imply that a manager should learn to think like a risk manager and add this element to a professional skill set.

Many managers confront this typical scenario: A city's pool is crumbling and needs upgrading, so a renovation project is announced. Input from the community indicates that some citizens want diving platforms. Other citizens would like to see wading pools for young children. Some want the facility to have features similar to the water park in a neighboring city.

As the renovation project moves along, the finance staff makes everyone aware of what the city can afford. Other staff members review the contracts and bids. Still others are involved with the construction. It is decided that diving platforms, a waterslide, and a wading beach will be a part of the newly renovated facility.

The plans are ready to be drawn, but--hold on a second!--is there anything that could pose a potential problem for the local government in the future, even with all the good planning that was put into this process? This is where risk management comes in: by providing an additional level of discernment. Here are some potential issues:

Compliance with laws and codes. Over the years, requirements for such items as pool depths, diving boards, and safety equipment have changed dramatically. Most architects and contractors are aware of these changes, but it never hurts to ask questions about pool specifications. …

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