What could possibly go wrong? That question doesn’t get asked often enough.
In June of 2002, it was discovered that the suction drain of a hot tub was strong enough to hold a child underwater. Seven-year-old Virginia Graeme Baker lost her life because a spa manufacturer did not ask the question: what could go wrong? The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act was signed into law in December of 2007.
If it feels like five years was too long to wait for a regulation that makes spas and pools less able to hold children underwater – I agree. The Act calls for safety interlocks and anti-entrapment screens ─ all the things you think would be common sense, but apparently weren’t. Implementation of the law is still being worked out.
But here is the thing – the pool in the backyard is yours. You can assume that designers and manufacturers (and government regulators) thought of everything, or you can start asking your own questions.
At the bottom of this post is the list of questions I consider when setting up a pool for safe operation. However, It is best when used as a starting point and an example for your list. As with most things relating to water safety, there are too many variables for absolutes. The hazards that are particular to your own backyard pool or spa are ones that you alone are going to have to manage. It’s hard and perhaps even stressful work, but I promise it will make your family safer.
Here’s how to do it:
Risk Management 101
Sit down and look at your backyard and start thinking: what could go wrong here? Think about everything that your kids might get into and start making a list of answers. It doesn’t matter how unlikely the hazard might be – from the most obvious risk (teens jumping from the roof into the pool – and they all think about it) to the most harmless looking trip hazard – list everything.
Once you’ve come up with your list of answer to the “what could go wrong” questions – apply the following to help you decide what to do about them.
Note: These next steps are vital. Please stay with me and do the work.
There are many formalized models of risk assessment, but at their core they are based on the following principle:
1. Given a particular hazard, determine the probability of occurrence and weigh it against the potential severity of the outcome.
2. If the risk is assessed as anything other than low – take steps to lower the probability or potential severity of the hazard.
Applying that model to pool safety, it looks like this:
The probability of a child slipping and falling on wet concrete is moderate or “occasional” - bare feet are slippery when wet.
The severity of that occurrence could be anything from moderate to “catastrophic” - they may just bruise their pride or they may hit skull-first on the concrete and fall – unconscious – into deep water.
So the risk assessment for slip and fall is pretty high, isn’t it? As parents we can mitigate that risk in one of two ways: lower the severity or lower the probability. Lowering the severity in this case would be difficult, so we lower the probability by building pool decks that are slip resistant and implementing a “NO RUNNING” rule at our pool. The non-slip deck is a design control, and the “no running” is a behavioral control. Slip and fall risk mitigated – check.
All of this may seem like a little too much explanation for what most of us call “common sense,” except that it obviously isn’t. Common sense was screaming at the manufacturers of hot tubs that single suction drains at the bottom of the tubs were dangerous. They missed it; not because they were bad people who didn’t care, but because they never asked the question and considered it.
Repeat the process for all the hazards on your own list and your backyard will be a much safer place.
List of things I consider when looking at backyard pool safety: Click for the downloadable PDF.
…and don’t miss the videos from the Pool Safely campaign.