The Ultimate Guide to Swim Safety

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No one goes to the beach or pool expecting disaster. And no one should if rules are followed, risks are understood and precautions are taken. In the United States, drowning is the third leading cause of death and can happen in all swimming environments. The risk of drowning is particularly high for children. In addition, each swim environment presents its own challenges; it's important to be aware of hazards and safety measures no matter where you swim – lakes, rivers, oceans, pools, spas or ponds.

Risks can come from tides, pollution, slippery surfaces, animal life, undercurrents, swift waters, rapids and other hazards. While the environments for swimming present dangers, it's careless behavior that frequently causes accidents. Diving in the wrong area, mixing drugs or alcohol with swimming, swimming alone or taking an eye off a toddler are signs that basic swimming safety tips are not being followed and the result is injury or worse.

A critical safety precaution is to always watch for any buoys, flags or other warning signs and learn what they stand for. Probably most important of all is to use a life jacket if there is any doubt about swimming skill or when using watercraft. It is always best to learn about the risks and safety tips of an area before venturing out to swim. Below is a comprehensive resource list about swim safety in all environments, whether they're natural, like lakes, or controlled, like pools.

Ocean/Beach Safety

Swimming in the ocean is not the same as swimming in any other environment because tides and currents and surface movements unique to the ocean can be unpredictable and rapidly changing. This is also true for any body of water associated with the ocean, including gulfs, inlets and salt-water bays. A sudden wave can literally knock someone off their feet while a rip current can carry someone out to sea. The vast majority of rescues at the beach are due to rip currents, also commonly called “undertows.” If you get caught in a rip current don’t fight it. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the right move is to swim with the current until it relaxes and then you can swim away parallel to the shore.

Overexposure to the sun and to cold water both pose dangers as well. The water and sand can intensify the strength of the sun's UV rays, resulting in dehydration, characterized by disorientation, nausea and other symptoms. Exposure to cold water can lower body temperature far below normal, producing hypothermia, with it's symptoms of confusion and lack of coordination. In both situations, there may not even be an awareness that something is wrong until the symptoms suddenly appear. The result is an inability to focus and judge events in the swimming environment.

Another danger is that tides can carry unexpected items, such as medical debris, metal and glass. Always watch where you walk on the beach and in shallow waters. Do not swim if you see anything in the water that is questionable. A swimmer also shares the water with the local sea life. Jellyfish, sharks and stingrays are common visitors close to shore, as are other creatures indigenous to whatever area you are in

An important safety measure that many ocean swimmers don’t even think about is keeping track of location at the beach. A person can enter the water in one area and get carried by the current hundreds of yards down the beach without the swimmer realizing it. When they leave the water, even just minutes after entry, they can't find the place where they left their towel or their group. Make a good visual connection with something stationary on the shoreline before entering the water. Knowing these and other skills when entering ocean can help assure you and your family a safe beach experience.

  • Top 10 Beach Hazards – Discussion of various dangers that could be part of the natural environment of a beach.
  • Living Through a Riptide From her long-running column Ocean Watch in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, marine journalist Susan Scott details how to avoid getting caught in a rip tide and how to live through it if you do.
  • Rip Current Safety – Comprehensive information about the origin, formation, dangers and survival from the National Weather Service.
  • Florida Sharks and the Human Influence – From the state that consistently has the most shark attacks, an informative paper on the habits and tendencies of coastal sharks, their role in the ecosystem and efforts to preserve endangered shark populations.
  • Water Pollution at the Beach – An easy-to-understand write up about the types and sources of beach pollution and steps to clean up and prevent it.
  • Sun Safety - Facts about sun exposure for children
  • Action Steps for Safety – Action steps individuals can and should take to protect themselves from too much sun.
  • Beach Safety and Information Flags – Explains international beach flag standards for getting messages to beachgoers, boaters and other participants in water activities. Item 5 is the color coding description.

Swimming Pool/Spa Safety

For some people, a pool is the most familiar swimming environment. It may be too familiar to those who think they can let their guard down. Mistakes can result in injury and even cost someone their life. Children are the most vulnerable to accidents at the pool, so retaining visual contact is very important. This may be easier said than done in a crowded pool but can prevent a disastrous situation.

Another pool hazard are slippery surfaces. Losing your footing at a pool can mean a fall on concrete or into the water or hitting against the side of the pool. This is why it's never safe to run near a pool. Diving into water that's too shallow is another danger. Unless the water depth is sufficient, diving can result in serious injuries to the head and neck, even causing permanent paralysis.

Pool and spa filtering systems pose dangers for everyone but especially children. Hair or arms and fingers can get sucked into a filter area and leave someone unable to come up for air or escape without injury. Always instruct children to avoid these areas of a pool or spa, and keep clear of them yourself.

Pools can also harbor water-borne diseases from body fluids, including waste. Chemicals such as chlorine and acid are used in pools to kill off pathogens but can dissipate quickly, particularly in busy public pools. The chemicals can also cause their own problems, such as skin irritations, burns, eye irritation and asthma attacks. When swimming in a private pool, be sure enough time has passed after chemicals have been added before entering the water. The chemical boxes or bottles will instruct you to how long to wait. At a public or club swimming pool, make sure to adhere to any instructions from staff about when to swim and when it is necessary to leave the pool area.

  • Water Safety – Tips and downloadable Water Safety Brochure for posting around a pool or taking with you for easy reference about what to do in emergency situations at the pool.
  • Pool Fencing Guidelines – A downloadable brochure with suggested fencing guidelines and a checklist for pool and general safety.
  • Fence Swimming Pools – A question-and-answer format for pool owners on reasons why pool fences are needed and safety issues to consider.
  • Spa Safety Tips – Information on dangers of spas, hot tubs and whirlpools with recommendations to avoid them.

Other Safety Resources

  • Learn to Swim – Site covers why it's important for everyone to learn how to swim, along with national organizations that provide lessons.
  • Rescuing a Drowning Victim – Instructions on what to do and what to expect when you are rescuing someone from a pool with a reaching assistance tool.
  • River Safety – Tips for staying safe in river boating activities.
  • Whitewater Safety – Detailed code of how to prepare for white water activities and responsible behavior and actions while boating. Includes universal river signals for non-verbal messaging.
  • Lake Safety for Kids – Bobber the Safety Dog teaches kids about Lake safety through interactive games, printable coloring pages and cartoons.
  • Buoys and Markers – Resource for learning the directions and information, including dangers, signaled by different buoys and markers from the Lower Colorado River Authority.
  • Pond Safety Fact Sheet - Comprehensive discussion of the benefits and dangers of ponds on farms, determining if a pond is suitable for swimming and how to make ponds safe.
  • Swimming Holes - Guide to swimming holes across the U.S. with safety tips
  • Water Quality at U.S. Beaches: Guide for finding out whether federal, state or municipal authorities test for water quality at a U.S. Beach and where to find the most current information if they do.

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