Swimming pools are great places for entertainment and family fun. However, they are also the location many drowning and injuries of small children every year in America. We’ve included some guidelines for pool safety that can help prevent many of these situations. This guide is designed for use by builders, owners, and purchasers of residential pools, spas, and hot tubs. These guidelines are intended general safety tips and are not the sole methods to minimize pool drowning of young children. We recommend “pool schools” offered by local pool manufacturers/servicers as a means to fully understand the safety and function of your pool.
Every day, about ten people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, two are children aged 14 or younger. Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States.1
How big is the problem?
- From 2005-2009, there were an average of 3,533 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States — about ten deaths per day. An additional 347 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents.2
- About one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger.2 For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries.1
- More than 50% of drowning victims treated in emergency departments (EDs) require hospitalization or transfer for further care (compared with a hospitalization rate of about 6% for all unintentional injuries).1,2 These nonfatal drowning injuries can cause severe brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities, and permanent loss of basic functioning (e.g., permanent vegetative state).3,4
Who is most at risk?
- Males: Nearly 80% of people who die from drowning are male.2
- Children: Children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates. In 2009, among children 1 to 4 years old who died from an unintentional injury, more than 30% died from drowning.1,2 Among children ages 1 to 4, most drownings occur in home swimming pools.2 Drowning is responsible for more deaths among children 1-4 than any other cause except congenital anomalies (birth defects).1 Among those 1-14, fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death behind motor vehicle crashes.1
- Minorities: Between 2005 and 2009, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher than that of whites across all ages.2 The disparity is widest among children 5-14 years old. The fatal drowning rate of African American children ages 5 to 14 is almost three times that of white children in the same age range.2 The disparity is most pronounced in swimming pools; African American children 5-19 drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than those of whites. This disparity is greatest among those 11-12 years where African Americans drown in swimming pools at rates 10 times those of whites.5 Factors such as access to swimming pools, the desire or lack of desire to learn how to swim, and choosing water-related recreational activities may contribute to the racial differences in drowning rates. Available rates are based on population, not on participation. If rates could be determined by actual participation in water-related activities, the disparity in minorities’ drowning rates compared to whites would be much greater.6
What factors influence drowning risk?
The main factors that affect drowning risk are lack of swimming ability, lack of barriers to prevent unsupervised water access, lack of close supervision while swimming, location, failure to wear life jackets, alcohol use, and seizure disorders.
- Lack of Swimming Ability: Many adults and children report that they can’t swim.7,8 Research has shown that participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning among children aged 1 to 4 years.9,10
- Lack of Barriers: Barriers, such as pool fencing, prevent young children from gaining access to the pool area without caregivers’ awareness.11 A four-sided isolation fence (separating the pool area from the house and yard) reduces a child’s risk of drowning 83% compared to three-sided property-line fencing.12
- Lack of Close Supervision: Drowning can happen quickly and quietly anywhere there is water (such as bathtubs, swimming pools, buckets), and even in the presence of lifeguards.13,14
- Location: People of different ages drown in different locations. For example, most children ages 1-4 drown in home swimming pools.2 The percentage of drownings in natural water settings, including lakes, rivers and oceans, increases with age.2 More than half of fatal and nonfatal drownings among those 15 years and older (57% and 57% respectively) occurred in natural water settings.2
- Failure to Wear Life Jackets: In 2010, the U.S. Coast Guard received reports for 4,604 boating incidents; 3,153 boaters were reported injured, and 672 died. Most (72%) boating deaths that occurred during 2010 were caused by drowning, with 88% of victims not wearing life jackets.15,16
- Alcohol Use: Among adolescents and adults, alcohol use is involved in up to 70% of deaths associated with water recreation, almost a quarter of ED visits for drowning, and about one in five reported boating deaths.2,15,17 Alcohol influences balance, coordination, and judgment, and its effects are heightened by sun exposure and heat.17
Why the Swimming Pool Guidelines Were Developed
Pool barriers should be designed to prevent handholds, footholds, or openings along the bottom to prevent climbing or crawling under to enter the pool area. The top of a gate or barrier should have a minimum height of 48 inches, measured on the outward facing side of the barrier. Solid barriers should have only minimal protrusions created by construction connections and masonry joints. Horizontal supports should be on the pool-facing side of any fence that is made up of horizontal and vertical supports when distances from the tops of the horizontal members measure less than 45 inches. Vertical support spacing should be no more 1-3/4 inches (the approximate width of a small child’s foot). Decorative additions or cutouts in the fence should not create gaps that exceed 1-3/4 inches. Inclusive of spas and hot tubs as well.
How to Prevent a Child from Getting OVER a Pool Barrier
A successful pool barrier prevents a child from getting OVER, UNDER, or THROUGH and keeps the child from gaining access to the pool except when supervising adults are present.
The Swimming Pool Barrier Guidelines
The spacing between vertical barrier supports should not exceed 4 inches (based on the head and chest measurements of a small child) to prevent pass-through access by children. Openings in lattice fences or fences with decorative cutouts should not exceed 1-3/4 inches to minimize footholds for climbing.
Chain link fences should have a maximum mesh size of 1-1/4 inches square unless slats are in place and secured at the ground and top of the fence to allow for openings to no more than 1-3/4 inches.
(The Consumer Product Safety Committee www.cpsc.gov)
All gates leading to the pool area, whether from the house or from other areas of the property, should open away from the pool and should be self closing, self-latching, and have a locking mechanism. This requirement is to prevent young children from simply pushing on the gate and entering the pool area. Pushing should cause the gate to close and ideally to latch. To prevent child access to the latch release device measuring below 54 inches from the bottom of the gate, the device should be at least 3 inches below the top of the pool-facing side of the gate. Also, there should be no openings in the gate and/or barrier greater than 1/2 inch within 18 inches of the latch release. This prevents latch release from the outside of the pool area.
The doors of you home which lead directly to the pool area are very important parts of the barrier system. These doors should be equipped with audible alarms to alert you in the event of a child entering the pool area unsupervised.