Water Safety

Lowering The Risk of Drowning




In the United States, drowning ranks fifth among the causes of death from unintentional injury. And, even when a drowning incident does not result in death, it can result in significant long term disability. Drowning happens quickly and suddenly. Lowering the risk for drowning requires following general principles of water safety and establishing layers of protection. Having layers of protection in place provides “backup” if one protective strategy fails, reducing overall risk. The American Red Cross has established five layers of protection for lowering the risk for drowning:

  • Learn swimming and water safety survival skills
  • Swim in lifeguarded areas
  • Have children, inexperienced swimmers and boaters wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved lifejackets
  • Provide close and constant supervision to children who are in or near the water
  • Fence pools and spas with adequate barriers to prevent unsupervised access

Age is a major risk factor for drowning incidents. In the United States, drowning ranks second, behind motor vehicle crashes, as a cause of death from unintentional injury in children ages 1–14. Children between the ages of 1 and 4 years have the highest rate for drowning. Most of these incidents occur in home swimming pools, but any source of water, including a bathtub or partially filled bucket, is a potential drowning hazard. An infant can drown in as little as 1 inch of water.



  • Enroll children in Red Cross Parent and Child Aquatics, Preschool Aquatics and Learn-to-Swim courses. Providing early aquatic experiences to a child is a gift that will have lifelong rewards.
  • Young children are curious and their interests and abilities change from day to day. Do not leave a young child unattended near any source of water, even for a moment.
  • Closely supervise children in, on or around the water, even when a lifeguard is present, no matter how well the child can swim or how shallow the water. Stay within an arm’s reach of any weak or inexperienced swimmer who is in the water.
  • Know each child’s swimming ability and set specific rules for each child based on her swimming ability.
  • Do not rely on the use of water wings, swim rings, inflatable toys and other items designed for water recreation to replace a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket or adult supervision. These devices can suddenly shift position, lose air or slip out from underneath the child, putting the child at risk for drowning. They may also falsely increase a child’s sense of confidence, causing him to venture into water that is too deep.
  • Teach children not to engage in competitive underwater games, such as seeing who can hold his or her breath the longest underwater or seeing who can swim the farthest before coming up for air. Hyperventilation (that is, taking a series of rapid, deep breaths before submerging in an effort to hold the breath longer underwater) affects the body’s drive to breathe. The child could pass out and then instinctively take a breath underwater, leading to drowning.
  • Teach children to stay away from pool drains and other openings that create suction. The suction can hold the child underwater, leading to drowning.
  • Prevent access to standing water in the home. Empty bathtubs, sinks, kiddie pools, buckets and other containers immediately after use. Keep toilet lids down and bathroom and laundry room doors closed and secured with safety locks.
  • Never leave a child in a bathtub alone; always stay within arm’s reach. Do not rely on bathtub floating aids to protect your child from drowning.
  • If you own an inground swimming pool, aboveground swimming pool (including inflatable “easy-set”-type pools) or hot tub:
    • Surround the entire pool or hot tub area with a fence that is at least 4 feet high, has a self-closing and self-latching gate, and is designed so that a child cannot climb over, under or through it.
    • Be sure that all gates, windows and doors leading to the pool or hot tub area are locked.
    • Make sure that pools and hot tubs are covered when not in use, and that the cover is secured.
    • Keep pool toys out of the water and out of sight. (A child may see a pool toy floating in the water and try to go after it.)
    • To prevent the child from climbing over a fence and getting into the pool or hot tub area, keep chairs, tables and other items the child could climb on away from the pool or hot tub enclosure.
    • If a child is missing, always look in the pool area first. Seconds count in preventing death or disability.
  • If there are bodies of water, fountains or other water features on or near your property or in the community, teach children that these areas are off-limits unless they are accompanied by an adult.
  • When visiting another home, check the site for potential water hazards and always supervise your children. Never let a child play near storm drains. (Storm drains are especially dangerous after it has rained.)

Age is a major risk factor for drowning incidents. In the United States, drowning ranks second, behind motor vehicle crashes, as a cause of death from unintentional injury in children ages 1–14. Children between the ages of 1 and 4 years have the highest rate for drowning. Most of these incidents occur in home swimming pools, but any source of water, including a bathtub or partially filled bucket, is a potential drowning hazard. An infant can drown in as little as 1 inch of water.



  • PLEASE do not swim when you have diarrhea. This is especially important for children in diapers
  • PLEASE avoid getting pool water in your mouth, or swallowing it
  • PLEASE practice good hygiene
    • Shower with soap before swimming
    • Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers
  • PLEASE take your children on bathroom breaks and check diapers often
  • PLEASE change diapers in a bathroom or a diaper-changing area, not at poolside
  • PLEASE wash your children thoroughly (especially the buttocks area) with soap and water before swimming

Adapted from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Six Steps for Healthy Swimming.




  • Learn to swim
  • Do not use alcohol or drugs while engaging in aquatic activities
  • Obtain the knowledge and skills you need to prevent, recognize and respond to aquatic emergencies (for example, by taking a boating safety course before operating any watercraft)
  • Never swim alone. Swim only in designated areas and areas supervised by a lifeguard
  • Set up specific swimming rules for each member of your family or group based on swimming abilities. Closely supervise children in, on or around the water, even when a lifeguard is present
  • Read and obey all rules and posted signs. Pay special attention to water-depth markings and “no diving” signs
  • Enter the water feet-first, unless you are in an area that is clearly marked for diving and has no obstructions
  • Watch out for the “dangerous too’s”: too tired, too cold, too far from safety, too much sun and too much strenuous activity
  • Have a means of summoning help (such as a mobile phone) close by. Aquatic emergencies often happen quickly and unexpectedly
  • Get trained in first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillator (AED) use. To enroll in a Red Cross first aid, CPR and AED class, visit www.redcross.org



  • Pool fence gates should be self-closing and self-latching and open outward, away from the pool. The latch should be out of a small child’s reach
  • Pool barriers should be at least 4 feet high and enclose the entire pool area. They should not have any features that could be used as a hand- or foothold. Solid barriers should not have any features other than normal construction joinery
  • For most fence designs, spacing between vertical members should not exceed 1¾ inches. The opening on chain link fences should not exceed 1¼ inches
  • Horizontal fence support structures that are less than 45 inches apart should be on the pool side of the fence. On fences with horizontal support structures that are greater than 45 inches apart, the horizontal support structures can be on either side of the fence
  • The space under a pool barrier should not exceed 4 inches
  • Any openings in the barrier should not allow a 4-inch sphere to pass through
  • Aboveground pools (including inflatable “easy-set”-type pools) should have a barrier mounted on top of the pool structure that encloses the entire pool. Steps or ladders to the pool should be removable or enclosed by a locked barrier, so that the pool surface is inaccessible
  • Hot tubs should have a lockable structural barrier that completely encloses the top of the hot tub and will not collapse under the weight of a child
  • It is preferable that the house should not form any side of the barrier
    • In situations where a house does form one side of the barrier, the doors leading from the house to the pool should be locked and protected with alarms that produce a sound when a door is unexpectedly opened.
    • Alarms should continuously sound for 30 seconds and begin within 7 seconds of opening the door

Adapted from Consumer Product Safety Commission: Safety Barrier Guidelines for Home Pools.(www.cpsc.gov)



Water competency is possessing the basic, minimum skills needed for water safety and survival. Providing participants with the skills they need to achieve water competency should be an objective of every swim instruction program. More than just knowing “how to swim,” water competency includes the ability to:

  • Enter the water and completely submerge
  • Recover to the surface and remain there for at least 1 minute (floating or treading)
  • Turn 360° and orient to the exit
  • Level off and propel oneself on the front or the back through the water for at least 25 yards
  • Exit the water

The ability to demonstrate the skills that constitute water competency in one aquatic environment may not translate to another. For example, a person who is water competent in a pool may not be water competent in a lake, river or ocean because of different environmental conditions, such as cooler water temperatures or currents. Therefore, the definition of water competency should specify the environmental context.

A definition of water competency allows swim instruction programs to establish specific goals that lead to water competency, and provides participants with the knowledge that after completing a certain level of the swim instruction program, they should possess the minimal skills needed for water competency in that environment.



  • Wear a swim cap or wetsuit hood, especially for activities that involve frequent submersions (such as surfing)
  • Use silicone earplugs. Avoid wax earplugs because these can damage the ear canal and make infection more likely. Do not use any earplugs when surface diving
  • Keep the lining of your ear canals healthy. Do not insert objects (such as cotton swabs or a finger) into the ear canal, because doing so can remove protective earwax and scratch the lining of the ear canal, making infection more likely
  • Remove water from the ears after swimming
    • Tilt your head to one side (so that one ear is facing down) and jump energetically several times to allow water to escape from your ear. Gently pulling the earlobe in different directions while the ear is facing down may also help the water escape
    • Use a hair dryer on the low setting: gently pull down the ear lobe and blow warm air into the ear from several inches away
  • Use over-the-counter eardrops that contain one or more agents to evaporate any water, kill the organisms and moisturize the ear canal before and after swimming. Ask your health care provider for recommendations
  • Dry ears thoroughly after swimming by using a towel to gently wipe the outer ear. Do not insert anything (such as a cotton swab) into the ear canal in an attempt to dry it
  • Children who have ear tubes should only participate in aquatic activities that have been approved by their health care providers



Having an emergency action plan in place and being familiar with the procedures it contains can save precious minutes when every minute counts.

To create an emergency action plan:

  • Identify the types of emergencies that could occur. Think about potential accidents, injuries, illnesses, weather events and other situations (such as power failures) that are likely to occur in your specific setting
  • Develop and write down the procedure that is to be followed in the event of each emergency. Include:
    • The signal that will be used to indicate that the emergency action plan should be activated (such as a whistle blast, hand signals or both)
    • The steps for responding to the emergency, and who is responsible for each step
    • The procedure for calling 9-1-1 or the local emergency number and directing emergency medical services (EMS) personnel to the scene
    • What follow-up actions should be taken, if any
  • Identify equipment that is needed to respond to the potential emergencies you have identified and stock it close by, in the pool area



A safety post can be used to keep basic water rescue equipment organized and easily accessible poolside. To make a safety post, you will need:

  • 4 inch × 4 inch post, 6 feet long
  • Screw-in hanging hook large enough to hold the throwing equipment
  • Throwing equipment, such as a ring buoy or a heaving jug*
  • Reaching equipment, such as a 10- to 12-foot reaching pole
  • Clips to secure the reaching equipment OR two 6-ounce cans with both ends removed and nails
  • Plastic zipper bag
  • First aid kit
  • Emergency contact information, including phone numbers for summoning help and information that will help responders find your location (i.e., the street address and the names of the nearest cross streets)
  • Safety poster or first aid booklet (optional)
  • On one side of the post, screw in the hanging hook about 1 foot from the top of the post.
  • On the other side of the post, secure the clips or nail the two open-ended cans, one about 1 foot above the other, no lower than 2 ½ feet from the bottom of the post.
  • Set the post 2 feet in the ground.
  • To make a heaving jug, put ½ inch of water or sand in the 1-gallon plastic jug and screw the top on tightly. (If the jug has a snap-on top, secure it with very strong glue.) Tie the rope to the handle of the jug.
  • Hang the ring buoy or heaving jug and line on the hanging hook.
  • Secure the reaching pole with the clips or put the reaching pole through the cans.
  • Put emergency contact information, the first aid kit and the first aid booklet or poster (if you are including one) in the plastic zipper bag and attach it to the top of the post.

* To make a heaving jug, you will also need a 1-gallon plastic jug with a top and 40–50 feet of lightweight rope.