In addition, waterslide manufacturers provide guidance on safe operations of waterslides, and insurance companies hire third-party inspectors to protect themselves from liability over possible injuries, says Rac Carroll of Jeff Ellis & Associates, which provides lifeguard training for waterparks in the United States. However, we can’t help but question the benefit of those variables. For example, there’s no way to determine whether waterparks follow the manufacturers’ operating guidelines. Also, although third-party inspections by insurance companies are better than no inspections at all, for all we know, those inspectors are more interested in limiting a park’s liability than in trying to protect consumers.
Mangone says the industry supports local and state regulation of waterparks but not federal oversight. Unsurprisingly, Carroll and Root also reject the idea that federal oversight would boost safety. Root says federal standards would fall short of more-rigorous voluntary standards that operators now follow.
We believe that allowing the industry to police itself or to operate with no nationwide mandatory standards for safety creates a problem for consumers, of course. Local or state regulations, where they exist, vary so much that it’s difficult for consumers to evaluate and compare park safety. Also, the lack of waterpark injury data indicates a lack of transparency.
New federal legislation would provide standards for some basic aspects of waterpark operations. A Model Aquatic Health Code, which is being developed by CDC, could be complete by late 2013. It would be left to individual state legislators to decide whether to adopt the new code, which addresses issues such as facility design, water quality and lifeguard staffing. The code might be ready for consideration by states as soon as 2014. IAAPA and WWA support the code and say waterpark operators that are in states that lack regulation are eager for the guidance that it would provide.
It isn’t clear that the code would reduce waterpark injuries or boost the public’s ability to determine which parks are safe. For instance, a draft of the CDC code makes no mention of new standards for public reporting of injuries or injury investigations.
ON YOUR OWN. Unfortunately, it’s next to impossible for consumers to evaluate the safety of a waterpark because of the lack of regulations and the lack of measurable guidelines that could help to determine whether a waterpark pays maximum attention to safety.
For example, even states that have vigorous oversight of waterparks don’t make injury data easily available through a public database. New Jersey, for instance, will release injury information, but consumers first must make a public-records request to the state, which is what we did.
Also, no rule of thumb exists for consumers to decide whether a waterpark complies with proper swimmer-to-lifeguard ratios, which typically are determined locally. Carroll says lifeguards should be placed so they can get to a swimmer who’s in distress within 20 seconds. In Ohio, which strictly regulates waterparks, state rules say one lifeguard must be present for every 2,000 square feet of surface water at wave pools, and lifeguards should be stationed at splash pools at the base of waterslides to ensure that riders exit the water quickly.
Even if lifeguards are present in what appears to be proper ratios, we suggest that you tour all of the areas of the park with your children first before you let them play. You should make sure that you point out the areas of the park where collisions are most likely to occur and make it clear to the children that they, for instance, shouldn’t linger in areas that are next to waterslide landing areas. In addition, you can check areas, such as waterslide loading and landing areas, to make sure that the waterpark has lifeguards stationed at those areas.
The bottom line is that you have to take matters into your own hands when it comes to judging the safety of a waterpark. The lack of transparency by the waterpark industry makes us wonder whether it’s doing everything that’s possible to ensure customer safety. The next time that you head to the waterpark, you should ask yourself: Will you have a blast, or will you get burned?
Freelance writer Sara Bongiorni is a regular contributor to Consumers Digest. She also has written for The Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times.