Setting A Gold Safety Standard

At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Team USA Swimming won 31 medals, 12 of which were gold and 11 more total medals than the second closest country. What made the team great? Although swimming is an individual sport, it took all members of the team to do their best in order to achieve excellence. Much like Team USA, pool operators and the environmental health professionals that inspect pools need to work together to ensure that pools and related products and equipment are working properly.

A Timely Topic One of the many positives that emerged from Team USA Swimming’s monumental success was an increased interest in swimming nationwide with more and more families visiting their local community pool. In late 2008, USA Swimming--the national sanctioning body for the sport--predicted that it would enjoy its largest-single year membership boost. While this increase in attendance is great news for local and community pools, it also highlights the importance of providing a safe environment for patrons to enjoy recreational water activities.

In addition, recreational water-facility safety has become a hot-button issue. Since the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act was signed into law in December 2008, pool operators have focused much of their efforts to ensure they are in compliance with the new law. Designed to prevent death or serious injury from drain entrapments in pools and spas, the law was named after Virginia Graeme Baker, the 7-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State, Jim Baker. She drowned in 2002 after being trapped by the suction force of a pool drain.

However, in addition to the importance of following the guidelines mandated by the Virginia Graeme Baker Act, pool operators cannot ignore the dangers that exist from recreational water illnesses (RWIs). These illnesses are second only to personal safety (slipping, falling, drowning, etc.) among patron’s water-related safety concerns.

Survey Highlights Safety Issues

A recent survey of environmental health professionals conducted by NSF International and PPG Industries has shed light on some of the most common health-code violations these individuals come across during annual or semi-annual recreational water-facility inspections. The survey found that 92 percent of inspectors or their colleagues have shut down a recreational water facility in the past three years. While the shutdowns were mostly temporary, the vast majority (85 percent) of the inspectors cited poor water quality/clarity as the reason.

The survey also revealed some of the common issues and obstacles facing environmental health professionals as they conduct inspections. Pool operators and owners who understand these issues and make plans to alleviate them will be helping not only the inspectors, but their own facility and most importantly their customers.

Inspectors Wearing Multiple Hats

According to the survey, 98 percent of the inspectors indicated that, in addition to inspecting recreational water facilities, they also are responsible for inspecting restaurants, schools, daycare centers, campgrounds and wastewater treatment plants.Therefore, the time that they have to conduct inspections is limited, and is probably going to be reduced even further because of recent recessionary budget cuts.

When it comes to community pools, the survey indicated that 42 percent of these facilities were inspected once per year or less.With a limited number of inspections, the responsibility falls on pool operators and owners to understand local codes and requirements for recreational water quality. Furthermore, with fewer inspections, it is in the best interest of pool operators to have key staff educated as to the requirements of their local government, and also to understand any manufacturer requirements for maintaining pumps, filters, chlorination equipment and associated products.

What Are Environmental Health Professionals Finding?

Depending on the type of recreational water facility, environmental health professionals are seeing a variety of water-quality violations. For example, some types of water facilities are more susceptible to water-quality violations than others. Facilities that have kiddie pools and hot tubs typically see more violations because these sources have lower water volumes and, therefore, more room for error by pool operators.

However, in most cases, the violations were chemical-related, such as incorrect chlorine levels or unbalanced pH levels. In addition, a significant number of inspectors cited problems related to malfunctioning or improperly calibrated water sanitation and circulation equipment. Another common violation that inspectors cited in the survey is inaccurate or incomplete records.

Lack Of Familiarity With Health Codes

Environmental health professionals were also asked their opinions on the knowledge of pool operators and their staff on local codes, regulations and inspection requirements. Sixty-two percent replied that they consider only half or less than half of the managers/operators with whom they interact to be well-trained or well-informed regarding inspection requirements. According to the survey, despite having all of the available information available, the pool operators are not fully educated on relevant codes and requirements, and do not realize the consequences if they are not in compliance.

Another major reason the survey cited for lack of knowledge has to do with a high seasonal-employee turnover rate. Inspectors also were asked whether they interact with the same individual operators or managers at the recreational water facilities they inspect. Sixty-two percent of the environmental health inspectors reported that they deal with the same staff at community pools and recreational parks on a regular basis.While that’s more than half, many new staff and even some tenured staff are not as well-versed as they should be on the latest regulatory codes.

Offering Solutions And Recommendations

The environmental health professionals did not just point fingers in the study, but rather offered recommendations and best practices to pool owners and operators to reduce violations and keep patrons safe. First, managers and operators need to take a more active role in maintaining water quality. Additional recommendations are divided into two categories--maintaining safe water quality and maintaining the equipment that helps to keep the water clean.

Recommendations for maintaining safe water quality:

· Have all health/state codes printed out and readily available.

· Require that persons who operate the pool attend a Certified Pool Operator (CPO) or Aquatic Facilities Operator (AFO) training course.

· Set up a routine for checking pool water, and pay special attention to pH and chlorine measurements.

· Keep the pool’s log in a specified location, and stress the importance of maintaining accurate records.

· Buy and devote one test kit for every body of water at the beginning of the year.

Recommendations for maintaining pool equipment:

· Know all relevant state codes regarding chlorinator sizing. When in doubt, oversize.

· Follow the manufacturers’ recommendations for the use of equipment and chemicals without exception. For example, use the recommended chlorine tablets with the right chlorinator. Use of any chemicals other than those specified could present a serious safety risk.

· Stay within NSF/ANSI Standard 50 Guidelines by using only chemicals recommended by the manufacturer in flow-through chlorinators.

Setting A Gold Standard

Having a team-oriented relationship with environmental health professionals is critical. As more and more recreational water facilities open around the country, the fewer environmental health professionals there are to inspect them. Pool operators, managers and owners who take a proactive approach will be doing their part and as a result will be helping inspectors do theirs.

At the 2008 Summer Games, it took individual responsibility and attention to detail by each Team USA member to ensure the overall team’s success. Pool operators who take individual responsibility and pay attention to detail will not only be keeping their pools open and full, but most importantly keeping their patrons safe, healthy and happy.

Dave Purkiss is General Manager of Water Treatment and Distribution Products program at NSF International. He has worked for NSF for 22 years. He holds a B.S in Biochemistry from Michigan State University, and serves on the AWWA Polyelectrolytes Standards Committee, the AWWA Utility Quality Management Programs Committee and the NSF International Recreational Water Products Joint Committee. For more information on the survey, visit