Watch Your Step

This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

“No running in the pool area” is a phrase commonly heard by any parks and rec professional responsible for an aquatic facility, whether it’s a neighborhood pool with a five-foot kiddie-slide or one of the mega-water parks with slides in the clouds.

It’s a constant challenge to keep kids—or even some young or young-at-heart adults—at a safe walking speed when they’re having a blast at the water park.

However, number one on the list of common water park and pool emergencies is trips and falls around the perimeter of the water, according to the Signature Care Emergency Center, a medical care group in Texas. The center further notes that water park and pool staffs do all they can to make surfaces slip-proof, but it’s still possible to lose footing and take a tumble.

From a risk-management perspective, an aquatic facility is high maintenance. From the construction of the building and all of the mechanical systems to the efficiency of the lifeguard staff, it is an accident-rich environment, and every detail is important to safety. There are enough things to worry about with the water facility itself; the surface of common deck areas shouldn’t be something a facility manager has to spend too much time with on a daily basis.

So selecting a pool-deck surface that is attractive, non-slip, safe, and durable is not just a luxury; it’s an operational and safety necessity, as more and more communities are making the decision to build a new water park or retrofit an existing facility. 

There is a mind-boggling variety of surfacing on the market today for someone outfitting a new facility. It makes sense to make slip-resistance part of the plan from the start. From rubberized surfaces to slightly abrasive patterned applications, there are options. It may be slightly more expensive up front, but the value in customer satisfaction and safety will pay forward.

However, many facility managers have existing surfaces that are slippery when wet that draw complaints from customers and keep the manager awake at night; replacement is extremely expensive, disruptive to business, and often infeasible. Retrofitting that surface with something that is low maintenance, safe, and economical presents a challenge to anyone tasked with making existing facility flooring safer.

A Case For Etching

When the folks at Water Park of America’s 70,000-square-foot indoor facility in Bloomington, Minn., needed to improve the surface of the common areas around the pools, they had to do their homework. 

“This past September we selected a product due to customer testimonials and overall safety ratings,” notes Angela Reed, Director of Sales and Marketing. “Also, this product was very affordable and competitive with other vendors we reviewed,” adds Reed, who obtained her information from the park engineers who worked on the project.

The product she refers to is a process applied to existing flooring to make it safer and more slip-resistant. It involves using a water-based chemical that mildly and microscopically “etches” the surface of existing porcelain tiles. Contractors in this niche market remove any wax or grease buildup on the deck, then chemically etch the surface, giving it greater gripping power when wet.

“The water park team is very impressed with the overall performance and durability of the process, and customers have also remarked on the safety factors of this product,” says Reed.

Safe Step in Prior Lake, Minn., the company that did the work, was started in 2000 when a founding member’s daughter slipped on the deck of a hotel pool. Fortunately, she wasn’t seriously hurt, but when he asked the hotel manager what could be done to avoid a repeat fall, the manager said he had tried but couldn’t find a solution.  

The light bulb went on, and through contacts with partners, the founders developed what they call the “paint-free, odor-free process,” according to Scott Nelson, Managing Director at Safe Step, who adds that the process dramatically increases the static coefficient of friction (anti-slip) on pool decks, tile floors, bathtubs, and shower basins.

Coefficient Of Friction

Coefficient of friction is probably not a term most parks and rec facility managers hear every day. However, it is the industry’s standard method of quantifying how products will improve the slip-resistant safety of existing deck surfaces. 

Static coefficient of friction is the amount of horizontal force required to initiate movement of a body in horizontal motion; in other words, standing still. Dynamic coefficient of friction is the amount of force required to maintain a body in horizontal motion; in other words, moving. There are measuring devices used to determine a deck’s coefficient, either before or after a corrective process.           

According to the American Society for Testing and Materials and other sources, floor slip-resistance testing is the science of measuring the coefficient of friction (or resistance to slip accidents) of flooring surfaces, either in a laboratory (before or after installation) or on floors at existing facilities.

Slip-resistance testing (or floor friction testing) is usually desired by the building’s owner or manager when accidents occur, when patrons report a near accident, or (preferably) before the flooring is installed.

A Look At Tribometers

Flooring is tested using a tribometer (floor slip-resistance tester) to discover if there is a high propensity for slip-and-fall accidents, either dry and/or (most often) when wet with water, or lubricated with other contaminants such as suntan lotion or sun block. There are different types of tribometers and lab devices to measure both the static (stationary) and dynamic (in motion) coefficient of friction, but presently there are only a few that have been proven reliable for obtaining useful safety results and that have current official test methods.

Two common types of tribometers that Nelson mentions are drag slip meters and bot devices. A drag slip meter has three “feet” on the bottom tipped with either rubber or leather (emulating shoe-sole material). It is pulled over a wet surface and measures the coefficient when it moves or “slips” (static) along the surface. The bot device actually kicks a “boot” down on the surface as it moves, mimicking walking (dynamic) and measures the resistance. 

A study conducted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, indicated that the results from using these devices should be viewed with caution: “The results from the different devices were not necessarily compatible with each other for all floor material and contaminant conditions. It should be cautioned that comparing the data collected from a field investigation with different types of slip meters could be inadequate. Therefore, to evaluate slipperiness in field situations, the performance of the slip meters used in this study still needs to improve.”

While parks and rec facility managers probably don’t have to know every technical aspect of these devices, it is probably a good idea to be familiar with them if managers are going to be working with contractors to find solutions to slippery decks. A liberal dose of common sense should be applied to the evaluation process.

Safe Step isn’t the only company that does this sort of process, and there are other retrofitting options, such as gritty coatings that can be applied to resist slippage.

Keep Surfaces Clean

Even the best slip-resistant surfaces won’t be effective if they aren’t kept cleaned and maintained.

When people walk onto pool deck surfaces from outside, the oils and dirt from the streets and sidewalks work their way into the pores of the surface. At outdoor facilities, oily sun blocks or tanning lotions can get onto the surface. All this adds up to a very slippery situation if decks aren’t cleaned regularly with grease-cutting agents and stiff brushes.

If an aquatic facility manager is considering new or improved slip-resistance, Reed has a piece of advice that might save time and money: “Testing small areas of the product to your specific environment is important.” 

This is a really good idea; wear-test the product, give customers a chance to try it, and see what they think. After all, they will be the ones better served by a suitable product. Even better, line up all of the options in a test area on the pool deck and make a direct comparison—maybe even a moveable movable test bed so different environmental effects (sun, shade, humidity, etc.) at different parts of the facility can be evaluated.

The bottom line for any parks and rec staff that has identified the need for a more slip-free deck is that it’s going to come with a significant price tag because of the large space. But if the surfacing is done right, “no running in the pool” might just sound less intimidating.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email