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What can aquatics teach us about youth safety?

A Preventative Culture Comparison

When we consider youth safety within an organization, it helps to analyze organizations with a reputation for creating safety in an environment that naturally presents risk. Aquatics is a prime example of preventative safety culture – rather than reactive safety culture.

Duties and responsibilities adhered to in aquatics include:

Swimmers, patrons, and aquatics areas are constantly monitored.

Safety rules are strictly enforced to the point of removing non-compliant patrons and staff from the aquatics area.

Staff is trained to act quickly and appropriately to secure the safety of patrons in emergencies while awaiting the arrival of emergency personnel.

Policies regarding hygiene are established, clearly communicated, and strictly enforced.

Water is regularly checked and treated with the appropriate dosages of chemicals.

Weather conditions are closely monitored to ensure the safety of the pool environment.

Swimming lessons and coaching are provided to the community and patrons.

What is a culture of safety?

“A culture of safety is a work environment where every day, every worker keeps in the forefront the well-being of those in care.”

Most organizations have policies related to safety. You’ve probably been instructed once or twice on how to report an incident. But safety culture goes beyond policies and procedures. It’s about the mindset, the established value of every single person’s safety, and how that mindset ignites a more effective network of preventative policies.

What does a culture of safety look like in aquatics?

When youth are in and around water, there’s an automatic assumption of risk. “This could be dangerous. So, therefore, we’re taking these precautions.” That’s why aquatics programs are typically great examples of a culture of safety.

Policies – Understood Standards
A culture of safety starts with the development and communication of clear, understandable standards. Everyone involved should know exactly what is expected of themselves and each other. They should also understand the consequences when standards aren’t met.

In aquatics, policies are approached as an essential part of operations, not as an afterthought or something to be tacked on. They’re well thought-out and communicated. They set the stage for a safe environment and create institutional memory.

The clarity of the policies is the first vital feature. They must be clear and concise with no room for confusion. They must be communicated along with the reasoning behind them. If staff doesn’t understand the reason for the policy, it’s more likely to be ignored. Lastly, the team must have the competence to adhere to the standards set. If that requires further training, further training must be provided.


  • Swim tests
  • Chemical levels
  • Severe weather
  • Running/horseplay
  • PFDs
  • Diving
  • Ratios

Some of these concepts relate to abuse Prevention. All programming should have policies that relate to:

  • One-on-one interactions
  • Physical and verbal interactions
  • Gift-giving
  • Electronic communication
  • Ratios

Training – Predictable Enforcement
Policies are not just useless if they’re not enforced. They can also be detrimental. When policies are not enforced, or not enforced consistently, those involved may perceive bias, malice, or neglect. Therefore, it’s imperative to the safety culture that all established policies are enforced as described every time.

Training is one of the most significant differences between aquatics safety and abuse prevention safety culture today. Sure, training is often provided in both settings, but what happens when a lifeguard doesn’t get certified? They don’t serve.

Lifeguards must always be trained professionals who are capable of maintaining the level of safety that’s expected. Some of the certification, in-service, and on-duty training they receive includes:

  • Endurance test
  • 20+ hrs instruction
  • Skills test
  • Written test
  • CPR, first aid, AED, oxygen administration
  • Inservice endurance swims
  • Demonstration of skills
  • Backboard/EAP drills
  • Red ball scanning test
  • Dummy drops
  • Shadow test

You should never hear an aquatics administrator say they “just need another body for the ratio,” and the same should hold true for non-aquatics programming.

Consumer Participation – Culture Adoption
Safety as a culture means everyone adopts safety as part of their job. They understand that part of their job description is maintaining their own safety and that of their coworkers and those in their care. It’s never assumed that safety is just someone else’s job.

It’s rarely enough for an organization to assume the responsibility of patron safety on its own. Consumer participation empowers the patron to control their safety to some extent. For example, in aquatics, there are swim lessons, rules posted around the pool area, and water safety classes such as Know Before You Go and Safety Around Water. Similarly, non-aquatics programming should look for ways to utilize consumer education pieces throughout their facilities and programming.

Monitoring – Warning Signs
The most critical part of safety as a culture is the vital assumption of risk. When it’s believed that abuse can happen anywhere by anyone, warning signs are taken seriously every time. Conversely, minimization due to denial creates a haven for abuse and a prison for victims.

Monitoring is where aquatics programs excel, and non-aquatics programming can adopt similar principles in their own monitoring procedures. The aquatics safety culture relies just as much on active monitoring as policy and training. Lifeguards and other personnel constantly perform zone scans. They apply rotation schedules that keep lifeguards’ eyes sharp. They create and study pool diagrams and perform chemical and facility inspections. The youth patrons undergo swim tests before they’re allowed in the deeper areas. In some cases, active drowning detection systems are implemented.

Immediate Reporting
The result of taking warning signs seriously within a culture of safety is immediate reporting – that is, reporting with zero hesitation or minimization. Regardless of who is involved or who may be a witness, all incidents, red flags, and warning signs are reported immediately.

High Morale
It might look like more restriction and less trust on the surface, but a genuine culture of safety actually increases morale. That’s because everyone feels safer, more valued, and generally more considered and involved within the organization’s context.

Quality Improvement
A culture of safety is a forward-thinking culture. Hazards tend to adapt, so prevention must constantly adapt as well. Quality improvement is an institutionalized concept in an organization that maintains an effective culture of safety.

The Continuum of Commitment

It starts with Complacency.
Complacency is the lack of safety culture and apparent disregard for safety throughout the organization. It doesn’t stem from a desire to invite abuse, but rather, from the absence of the assumption of risk.

Complacency denies that an incident could happen. It assumes safety. The organization may have few standardized procedures, hoping their past success will continue to be uninhibited. Responses are punitive, treating incidents as staff failures and not offering any prevention for future incidents.

Then there’s Compliance.
Compliance is just what it sounds like – adherence to state and federal regulations as standards of care. The problem with simple adherence to regulations is that regulations outline the bare minimum acceptable under the law. You cannot develop a culture of safety if your culture is to abide by the bare minimum you’re allowed.

Compliance focuses on reacting to incidents rather than preventing them. Staff may be trained but struggle with requirements and values. Red flags and warning signs are minimized because the risk is not assumed, understood, and prioritized.

And finally, Commitment.
Commitment is the gold standard. It’s what happens when safety is made a priority. There are designated roles for youth protection and responsibility. Training is frequent, relevant, impactful, and proactive. Recruiting processes are specifically designed to minimize the risk of abuse. Policies are clear, specific, and communicated well.

What’s stopping you?

There are a few known barriers to adopting an effective culture of safety. It all usually boils down to one thing: resources. Your time, attention, and money are pulled in different directions, and you must decide how to allocate them.

There is a lot we can learn from the aquatics culture. Organizations get closer to a culture of safety by moving from complacency or compliance, to developing commitment every day, during every shift, and with every employee. It is only possible to create a culture that prevents abuse by taking all warning signs, no matter how small, seriously. By working together to create a culture that prioritizes the safety of the consumers we serve over anything else, we all become lifeguards, safeguarding the lives of our children and vulnerable populations.