By Thomas M. Lachocki, Ph.D.

Introduction
The benefit of basic certification training to prevent drowning, injury and illness and to preserve capital investment is compelling. Training costs are minimal when compared to the cost of loss of life, limb and litigation. Basic, impartial training to individuals entering the pool and spa industry is particularly valuable.

There are several scientific disciplines that apply to proper pool and spa operation including chemistry, microbiology, engineering, public health and mathematics. It is rare to find field personnel with formal training in two or more of these disciplines. Operator certification courses are designed to build awareness of and apply these disciplines to help reduce the risk of illness and injury, additionally teaching how to minimize damage to the substantial capital investment represented by a pool or spa.

The business and ethical arguments to train all persons who maintain and operate residential and public swimming pools and spas to a minimum, verifiable level are also compelling. Those who choose otherwise assume a substantial and often catastrophic risk. Further, they limit the growth of the industry, which is already hampered by the hundreds of negative media stories reported each year. The potential liability that can and does occur due to aquatic incidents is always expensive (and sometimes fatal).

Individuals who influence or operate pools or spas should be aware of their responsibility to minimize risk to users and employees. The best-case scenario is to have verifiable, unbiased training from a nonprofit organization. Some large companies in the hospitality and apartment industry train certified operators at all locations as an integral part of their risk management strategy. Approximately 20 states require verifiable training and that number is growing. The prevention of injury and illness and the reduction of liability have become so critical that it is now a global priority.

Science supports operator training
Data from health department inspections, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals a substantial need to operate facilities more effectively. For example, out of 22,131 pool inspections, 8.3 percent had sufficiently severe violations to require immediate closure.1 A parallel study of spas was even more disturbing: out of 5,209 inspections, about 11.1 percent of the spas were immediately closed.2

Studies have been performed to answer the simple question, “Does a person who has been trained and certified run a better facility?” Research conducted by Eastern Kentucky University demonstrated a statistically relevant difference. The certified group of operators involved in the research had significantly fewer immediate closures per inspection than pools operated by non-certified operators. This data was collected by the Montgomery County, Ohio Health Department and presented by Luke Jacobs at the 2005 World Aquatic Health™ Conference (WAHC).

The YMCA commissioned a study of 572 pools and spas at 250 locations. Test parameters included knowledge of pH, free chlorine, combined chlorine and saturation index. The researchers reported that, “A certified pool operator on location makes a significant difference in the water quality and safe operation of our public pools and spas.”3

If we accept that trained and certified operators will reduce risk at aquatic facilities, the data published by the CDC becomes more disturbing. Regions where operator training and certification is required by law accounted for 97 percent of the data; about one in four facilities violated this requirement. The National Swimming Pool Foundation® (NSPF®) internal data indicates that training and certification rates are much lower when not required by the health code. If one in 10 facilities have health violations that warrant immediate closure, it is unsettling to consider how facilities are operated when operator training is not required.

Health departments informally report on the benefits of operator training and certification; however, this data rarely enters the public domain.

Risks and prevention
Aquatic facilities have unique hazards and operational challenges including drowning, recreational water illness (RWI), injuries, chemical exposure and suction entrapment. One of the first impressions many consumers have about pools and spas is based on all-too-numerous news stories about tragedies resulting from system failures. These occurrences reinforce the need to raise standards to minimize injury and illness.

Drowning
About 600 people drown in swimming pools and spas each year. Nearly half are children and approximately 2,800 require hospital visits according to the CDC.4 Next to car accidents, drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death of children from one to 14 years of age in the US.

Most drowning occurs in residential pools; some are under the care of a professional service company. Pool/spa technicians or operators are familiar with drowning prevention strategies and are better equipped to remind customers about the importance of constant supervision and the use of preventative strategies to restrict access by children. Swimmers in distress are more easily recognized when water clarity is maintained. Clear water also helps prevent collisions that can render a person unconscious and susceptible to drowning. Builders, designers and health officials familiar with aquatic hazards are more likely to implement appropriate fencing, gates, alarms or other layers of protection.

For example, certified service technicians understand that gates at private and public pools should be self-closing and self-latching and open away from the water. This type of gate is critical to prevent children from entering the water if a parent’s diligence lapses for a moment. If service company employees or pool operators are not present or unaware, it is unlikely they will promote the use of functional gates or other protective options.

Recreational water illness
There were at least 15 documented RWI outbreaks in 2006 according to a CDC report presented at the 2006 WAHC. Pools and spas are an ideal environment to harbor, grow and spread disease-causing germs that result in illness. Bacteria, viruses and cysts from the users’ skin and rectal area and from fecal accidents are regularly added to the water and the environment. It is vital that chemicals are used properly to reduce the risk of contracting illness. Inadequate disinfectant levels remain a major cause of disease outbreaks. This deficiency conflicts with local codes and training material covered in all operator training courses.

Chemical exposure
To a trained professional, it would be obvious that mixing chemicals is dangerous. Similarly, it would be clear that automatic chemical feeder systems should not pump chemicals when the circulation system is off. Trained operators know to periodically replace flexible tubing used to feed liquid chemicals. Yet many chemical handling accidents occur each year exposing consumers, guests and employees to harmful chemicals. Often, it is not obvious to an untrained technician that mixing two colorless liquids like sodium hypochlorite (aka bleach or liquid chlorine) and hydrochloric (aka muriatic) acid (often placed side-by-side) will release toxic chlorine gas. Despite this emphasis on maintaining proper disinfectant and pH levels, the CDC published results for pools and spas showing that improper disinfectant levels are common and alarmingly high at 11 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

Many chemicals have unique hazards. Fortunately, material safety data sheets (MSDS) and product labels contain handling guidelines and should be followed. Disinfectants are often classified as oxidizers, which is a unique hazard class since they can release toxic gas, cause fire or explode if contaminated, mixed or mishandled. When treatment chemicals are added to water they can react with contaminants and create hazardous by-products. The chemicals themselves, or their by-products, can create risks due to inhalation, ingestion and dermal contact.

Suction-entrapment
Water circulation, filtration and chemical treatment are key tools in the battle to prevent RWI. However, using pumps to circulate water creates risks due to suction entrapment. Entrapment, entanglement or evisceration occur when a limb, the torso, the body, hair, or the buttocks come into contact with a suction outlet, resulting in the victim being held to the outlet by the vacuum created by the pump. Or the victim can be entirely drawn into the suction piping. An untrained operator or service person may fail to recognize entrapment as a hazard and fail to implement prevention strategies.

There are a variety of design features and devices to minimize the possibility of entrapment. For example, pools can be designed to remove all direct suction, eliminating the entrapment hazard altogether. Also, ‘anti-entrapment’ drain covers, dual-main drains, vent lines and electro-mechanical devices that turn pumps off if an entrapment is detected are all options. If a drain cover is missing or damaged, the pool or spa should be closed immediately and not opened until it is replaced with an anti-entrapment cover. If there is direct suction to a single drain, other means of protection should be used.

Protecting capital investment
Aquatic facilities are often the center stage for a business. In addition, they are a substantial capital investment. Beyond the operational knowledge to prevent injury and illness, there are several factors to consider to protect the investment and to minimize costly repairs:

  • Maintain proper water balance to prevent corrosive damage to pool surfaces and equipment requiring costly repair and to prevent scaling that can increase heater energy expense.
  • Perform preventative maintenance to minimize costly structural and equipment repair or replacement.
  • Implement start-up and shut-down checklists to improve efficiency.
  • Implement seasonal start-up, shutdown and maintenance procedures to preserve the pool/spa and surrounding areas.
  • Maintain good records to prevent liability and to guide maintenance programs.

Conclusion
Operator training and certification courses exist that provide broad, basic information on the proper care for pools and spas. Regardless of which training and certification program you choose, it is a worthwhile investment. There are obvious reasons why training is important; however, it is important to raise some caveats. The Certified Pool-Spa Operator® certification training involves 14 to 16 hours of water chemistry, testing and problems, filtration and circulation, automation, heating and circulation, safety, maintenance and troubleshooting, regulations, management and other topics. Such a short course cannot sufficiently train every person to prevent every type of accident that happens at a pool or spa. Nor would such minimal training make every operator or service person aware of all the possible solutions. Yet, verifiable training from a nonprofit, nationally-recognized organization is an intelligent minimum standard for education.

Footnotes

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 6, 2003, 52(22); 513-516
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, July 2, 2004, 53(25); 553-555
  3. Kinzinger, M., and Johnson, R., Aquatics International, Nov. 1, 2003
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 4, 2004, 53(21); 447-452

About the author
Thomas M. Lachocki, Ph.D., is CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). He earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Louisiana State University and his BS from Lock Haven University, Pa. Dr. Lachocki has researched and published in diverse fields including catalysts, detergents, solvents and recreational water. He was awarded six patents that have been issued and are practiced in at least eight countries. Contact him at (719) 540-9119, (719) 540-2787 (fax) or tom.lachocki@nspf.org; for complete information about NSPF and its programs, visit www.nspf.org.

About the organization
NSPF is a nonprofit organization founded in 1965 that is committed to improving public health by encouraging healthier living through aquatic education and research. NSPF is the world’s leading provider of educational programs for North American pool/spa operators and health official through the CPO training program, which is available in English, French and Spanish. The NSPF disseminates research results through the International Journal of Aquatic Research & Education and provides advanced training at the World Aquatic Health™ Conference. Research grants and graduate fellowships are available. Information about NSPF programs can be found at www.nspf.org.

 

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