Special Report

Waterparks: Is Public Safety Going Down the Tubes?

Waterparks are a popular family destination, but they also might be an accident waiting to happen. Injuries at waterparks appear to be increasingly common, yet no nationwide safety standards exist for waterparks, and some waterparks are allowed to police themselves.

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Six-year-old Connery Ritter was playing in a shallow pool at the base of a slide at a Montana waterpark in August 2010 when another visitor careened off the flume and slammed into the back of Connery’s head.

The collision caused Connery’s head to snap forward with such force that his chin whacked into his chest. The resulting concussion caused bleeding in two areas of his brain.

“The doctor said the force to the back of his head was such that it could have taken his head off,” says Connery’s mother, Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter.

Fortunately, Connery made a full recovery after he spent 2 days in the hospital and rested for weeks at home. The incident left the Ritter family with $4,000 in out-of-pocket medical costs and questions about what could have been done to prevent such an accident. The waterpark never returned their phone calls, so the family has no idea why a lifeguard wasn’t standing at the base of the flume to prevent the boy from lingering in front of the slide. The family also has no idea whether the injury was reported to public officials.

Unfortunately, based on what we uncovered about the waterpark industry, nothing about what the Ritter family encountered surprises us.

Although waterpark operators insist that their facilities are safe and that injuries are extremely rare, our investigation found evidence of increasing injury rates and a lack of nationwide safety standards. The number of estimated injuries that are the result of accidents at waterparks increased by nearly 38 percent since 2009, according to federal statistics, even though attendance at waterparks increased just 3.8 percent over the same period.

Furthermore, the lack of nationwide government oversight presents a troubling environment where the largest parks are allowed to police themselves, while the rest of the waterparks follow a hodgepodge of state standards that make it nearly impossible to compare the safety of one waterpark with that of another.

HIDDEN DANGERS. Waterpark injury estimates that are compiled by Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) suggest that a troubling trend exists for consumers. CPSC injury calculations show an increasing number of injuries at waterparks, which, like other fixed-site amusement parks, aren’t subject to federal safety standards or inspections.

The estimated number of emergency-room visits that resulted from injuries that were suffered at “public waterslides” increased to 5,200 in 2011 (the most recent year of available data) from 3,779 in 2009, according to CPSC’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). The system compiles data from about 100 hospital emergency rooms to create estimates of injuries from sports and recreational activities, including waterparks. Injury estimates for 2012 weren’t available at press time.

The data have limits on what they tell us about waterpark safety. For instance, they don’t categorize the severity of the injury. (Most parks treat scrapes and minor cuts with first aid at the scene.) In addition, the estimates also don’t indicate whether the injuries occurred at a huge park that has long and fast slides or at a neighborhood venue that calls itself a waterpark, because it has small slides and splash pools.

Click chart above to view full presentation

Click chart above to view full presentation

Nevertheless, the data show an increase in waterpark injuries that can’t be explained by a comparable surge in waterpark attendance. Attendance at all North American waterparks in 2011 (the most recent year for available figures) increased to 83 million in 2011 from 80 million in 2009, according to World Waterpark Association, which is a trade group for waterparks. The percentage increase of injuries from waterslides outpaced attendance by a ratio of 10 to 1.

Waterpark-industry representatives dismiss NEISS injury estimates for waterslides and insist that waterparks pose no danger to public safety. Colleen Mangone, who is a spokesperson for International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), says the NEISS reporting system was designed to compile injury data for products that are distributed evenly throughout the United States, such as toasters or bicycles. Waterparks, however, aren’t located evenly, she says. As a result, if the raw data that NEISS collects come from hospitals in areas that have a disproportionate number of waterparks, NEISS estimates might be inflated.

For all we know, the estimates from NEISS might underestimate the number of injuries, too. CPSC doesn’t identify the names or locations of the hospitals that report to NEISS. CPSC also wouldn’t tell us whether its estimates for waterpark injuries take into account factors such as location and proportion. Even independent safety experts whom we interviewed say it’s unclear how accurate NEISS waterpark injury estimates are. Ken Martin, who is an amusement-park safety expert, says “no good data” exist on waterpark injuries.

SAFE APPROACH: Experts say you never should linger near waterslide landing areas because of the risk that you might get hit by another person.

SAFE APPROACH: Experts say you never should linger near waterslide landing areas because of the risk that you might get hit by another person.

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CPSC spokesperson Scott Wolfson says the agency “stands by its numbers,” and he adds that researchers around the country, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rely on NEISS data to study health issues.

What’s indisputable is that the waterpark industry doesn’t provide numbers to counter the federal data. Individual waterparks compile injury figures, but no national clearinghouse exists. In other words, the industry argues that no evidence exists that federal oversight would improve park safety, but it can’t provide any injury figures to show that waterparks are safe.

When we asked Mangone why IAAPA doesn’t track injury data, she didn’t answer the question directly. Instead, she said injuries at waterparks are “very rare” when compared with the number of customers at waterparks. That’s an interesting response from an organization that says it doesn’t have injury data.

Moreover, no way exists for consumers to find out whether some parks do a better job at protecting customers than others because of a lack of nationwide injury-reporting standards. Martin says “a lack of safety” exists at waterparks, in part, because no reliable data exist that can be used to identify and correct potential dangers.

“We need transparency to determine safety,” Martin says. “We don’t have it.”

Nancy Cowles, who is the executive director of Kids in Danger, which monitors the safety of children’s products, says the lack of federal standards for waterparks means that it’s impossible to pull together comprehensive and reliable injury data and that no system exists to efficiently share injury information among states. As a result, she says, it’s difficult to determine whether the documented injuries at waterparks are isolated incidents or part of a larger pattern of safety concerns.

“If there are no records kept, there is no way to know,” Cowles says.

Cowles says the biggest benefit of federal regulation would be mandatory collection of injury figures and the ability to more effectively share safety information among parks in all 50 states.

NO SAFETY NET. What isn’t in dispute is the lack of mandatory nationwide safety standards for waterparks. CPSC, which has regulatory authority over the safety of items such as cribs and bicycles, has no authority over waterparks. That’s just the way that the waterpark industry wants it to be. A 1981 amendment to CPSC’s Consumer Product Safety Act provides an exemption from regulation for large amusement parks, including waterparks. Congress agreed to the exemption after amusement-park lobbyists convinced lawmakers that fixed-site amusement rides aren’t consumer products in the standard sense of the word.

As a result, the nation’s largest waterparks aren’t subject to independent government inspections or public investigations of accidents—even those that involve visitor deaths. Ten of the nation’s 15 largest waterparks have no government ride-safety inspections. (See “Regulatory Slip ’n Slide,” below).
Attempts by one U.S. lawmaker to overturn the federal exemptions for the largest waterparks have gained no traction. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill in every Congress since 1999 that would restore federal oversight of fixed-site attractions, such as waterparks, to CPSC, but the legislation made no significant progress. In the most recent action, Markey referred the bill to a House subcommittee in September 2011. The bill since has expired, so it must be reintroduced.

Click chart above to view full presentation

Click chart above to view full presentation

Markey publicly described state oversight as ranging from “good to none” and said it’s an “outrage” that federal inspectors don’t have access to accident sites at waterparks and can’t order safety improvements. In addition to restoring CPSC oversight, his bill would authorize the agency to investigate waterpark accidents and make injury reporting by parks mandatory.

We wanted to know whether Markey planned to reintroduce his federal oversight bill in 2013 and how he would fund expanded CPSC investigations if his bill ever would pass. However, Markey spokesperson Giselle Barry failed to respond to any of the 12 phone messages and five emails that Consumers Digest submitted to Markey’s office during our reporting. That’s disappointing, because if the top proponent of creating federal standards for waterpark safety doesn’t even want to talk about it with Consumers Digest, what motivation do other lawmakers have to support the cause?

Furthermore, a 2007 investigation by The Washington Post says the waterpark industry spent a lot of money to oppose Markey’s efforts to create federal guidelines for waterpark safety. For instance, IAAPA spent $430,000 in 2001 alone in lobbying efforts to block Markey’s proposal.

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It isn’t surprising that consumer advocates support Markey’s bill. What’s surprising is that a former member of IAAPA’s board of directors also supports Markey’s bill. Jim Prager, who is a former attorney for Six Flags, was involved in the industry’s successful push for the exemption of fixed-site parks from federal oversight in 1981. However, in a 2007 letter of support of Markey’s legislation, Prager said he and the industry were “wrong 25 years ago” and that “the industry should be regulated."

Prager’s letter also says licensed safety engineers who are hired by waterparks’ insurance companies to inspect waterparks and to ensure public safety are an example of a system of self-regulation that’s “created to serve not the public, but the industry.” His letter says the current system provides “an illusory aura of safety.” We weren’t able to reach Prager for comment.

We also found evidence that tougher injury-reporting standards, including an increase in the use of government safety inspectors, can reduce injuries. Injuries at waterparks and other fixed-site amusement parks in New Jersey fell sharply after the state adopted rigorous regulations that include annual inspections by state inspectors and mandatory reporting of all customer injuries. The number of nonserious injuries at fixed-site parks, including waterparks, in New Jersey fell to 122 in 2011 from 282 in 1997, while the number of serious injuries fell to 6 from 24 during the same period, according to New Jersey’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which has authority over amusement parks. It’s worth noting that New Jersey achieved a sharp reduction in ride and waterslide injuries even as its overall amusement-park industry expanded. The number of amusement parks and waterparks in New Jersey nearly doubled to 184 in 2011 from 102 in 1997.

Martin says New Jersey’s experience provides evidence that federal regulation of waterparks would be beneficial to consumers.

“Whether an attraction is wet or dry or fixed or mobile, a parent wants to know if rides are a hazard,” Martin says, “and you need outside audits and injury reporting to give consumers the information they need to make that decision.”

STATE OF CONCERN. New Jersey’s approach to regulating waterparks is clearly an exception. State authority over waterparks varies to the extreme. Twenty-four states perform their own inspections of waterparks and investigate waterpark accidents, while 11 states give insurance companies the authority to inspect waterparks for safety compliance, according to a nationwide analysis of standards by Saferparks.org, which tracked such standards through 2009. (See “How States Monitor Waterparks”.) No other analysis of state standards for waterparks exists, and we found no evidence that standards in any state have changed significantly since Saferparks.org’s last analysis.

Ten states have partial oversight of some aspect of waterpark operations, such as waterslide inspections, while five states have no specific safety regulations for waterparks or other fixed-site amusement parks, including no regulations that cover accident investigations, according to Saferparks.org. States that have no waterpark or fixed-site ride-safety laws at press time are Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada and Utah.

The resulting patchwork of state oversight leaves the nation’s biggest waterparks with the least outside regulation and the most leeway to decide when a waterslide is dangerous and whether an accident merits an investigation. In New Jersey, even minor cuts and scrapes must be reported to state officials within 24 hours of an incident. In Florida, waterparks that have at least 1,000 workers and that employ full-time safety inspectors are required to submit reports of injuries only once every 3 months, and the waterparks are left to decide how vigorously to investigate injuries and fatalities. All other waterparks in Florida are required to report injuries to the state within 4 hours. In Florida, inspectors can’t set foot in a big park without getting the park’s approval, even if a fatal accident occurred.

We called the three largest waterparks in Florida to ask them why the size of their parks should exempt them from outside inspections and investigations. A spokesperson for Typhoon Lagoon at Disney World and Blizzard Beach at Disney World refused to answer our questions. A spokesperson for Aquatica at SeaWorld didn’t respond to our request.

World Waterpark Association (WWA) President Rick Root rejects the notion that waterparks aren’t regulated adequately. He says all parks are subject to local or state rules when it comes to matters such as water quality and lifeguarding requirements.

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.

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