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Backyard pool and spa safety

Five tips to ensure you enjoy your backyard responsibly

By Barbara Byers

In May 2020, backyard pool sales surged during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when it was uncertain how long Canadians were going to be ‘locked down’ at home.

Staycation was the thinking as travel both within Canada and beyond seemed like a distant dream.

Those who owned a pool, either inground or above-ground, were smiling as they were already set. For many others, they had to scramble to find a way to create their own backyard oasis.

When children and non-swimmers are in a pool setting it is important for adults to act as lifeguards.

Pool stores were seeing a massive increase in sales of above-ground pools, online sales at big box stores spiked, and builders of inground pools saw an increase in requests for installation quotes. But lead times for inground pools are considerable and many of those keen customers will be getting their pool in time for summer 2021.

While vaccines are slowly being phased in, many Canadians will be thinking of a staycation this year as well. And what could be better than having a pool in the backyard?

The combination of a lovely outdoor pool, parents working remotely, and kids spending more time at home means safety needs to be paramount.

Drowning is the main cause of unintentional injury deaths among children aged one to four and the second leading cause for children under 10 years of age. When a child drowns, word spreads quickly and news reports leading to the question of “How did this happen?”

Drowning is fast and silent—a child can drown in as little as 10 seconds. Victims rarely call, wave, or signal for help because they cannot keep their heads above water and their airway is blocked by the water entering their mouth.

Parents need to be close to children—if they are not within arms’ reach, they have gone too far.

Unfortunately, the scenario leading up to a drowning is all too familiar. It could happen easily in any backyard setting. Often it is the curious, inquisitive toddler desperate to get out to the backyard. The sparkling water in the pool creates an almost magnetic attraction, and they immediately search for an entrance to the pool. As parents, we want toddlers to love water—to enjoy their bath and appreciate spending time in the pool. It is no wonder they want to go into it.

Here are some safety tips for homeowners with pools that are big or small.

  1. Control and restrict access with multiple layers of protection

Four-sided fencing is the best way to go. While most backyard pool owners know they need to have fencing on three sides of the pool, they do not always go all the way for the fourth side. Most municipal bylaws allow for the fourth side to be the house, but many people do not install the fence between the house and the pool. This means they must always be sure the entrance is locked to prevent people from entering the pool from the house unplanned.

In many cases, a child inadvertently gets out of the house after a door or entry has been left open or unlocked. Quite frankly, it is human error.

Four-sided fencing will significantly reduce the need for adults to constantly check the entrance from the house. A self-closing, self-latching gate as part of the fourth fence will control and restrict access to the pool and ensure only those who are in the pool area are permitted to be there.

If the fourth fence cannot be built, then it is important to have layers of protection such as multiple locks, a door alarm, and motion sensors in the pool. Remember to constantly check all these layers.

2. Parents should actively supervise children

As drowning is silent and parents will often not hear their child’s call for help, they always need to keep eyes on them around the water.

However, this can be difficult to do sometimes. The temptation to turn one’s head when someone is talking to them should be resisted. The desire to grab a towel, pick up some sunscreen, and get lunch ready should be resisted, too. A parent’s job is to watch them. Further, parents need to be close to children—if they are not within arms’ reach, they are too far.

3. Put a life-jacket on young children and non-swimmers, not water wings

It is best to assign one adult per child and for each grown-up to attentively watch the kid, avoiding any distractions.

Life-jackets are an extra layer of protection. They will ensure a child will be turned right side up if they fall into the water with their mouth and airway out of the water. They are a safety device and a great choice for active toddlers who want to be independent. It is also important to make sure the life-jackets are Transport Canada approved.

Water wings are toys, not a lifesaving device. They are not recommended for children as they are not government approved and will not keep a child’s airway out of the water. If a child is wearing water wings and falls in the water, their face will stay in the water. They can also slip off easily.

4. Designate an adult to watch each child

Life-jackets are a safety device and a great choice for active toddlers who want to be independent.

Pool parties are so much fun—the social interaction, a nice drink in your hand, the smell of a barbecue, the sun shining, and the beautiful setting of a backyard pool. The temptation is just to relax and enjoy the moment. It is fun to see kids splashing and playing in a pool and entertaining themselves. An observer might say there are so many adults to watch the kids that they will be fine. But that is often not the case.

It is so easy to be distracted when around a pool area. When children and non-swimmers are in a pool setting it is important for adults to act as lifeguards. It is best to assign one adult per child and for each grown-up to attentively watch the kid, avoiding any distractions. If the adult must leave the pool setting, they should find another grown-up to take their spot and not assume others are watching.

5. Put your phone down

Research shows people can only concentrate on one thing at a time. Drowning is not like what one may have seen in the movies. Toddlers often make little noise when they tumble into a pool. In addition, children or adults for that matter do not shout for help when they are drowning or splash about and wave their arms as depicted on television (TV) or in films. If someone is on their phone, they cannot see them and likely will not hear them. Therefore, to avoid becoming a distracted parent—phones should be put away until children are safely out of the pool area.

Barbara Byers is the senior research officer at the Lifesaving Society. She is responsible for research projects and drowning prevention initiatives to keep Canadians safe around the water. For more information, she can be reached via email at barbarab@lifeguarding.com.

 

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