Reprint from DECISIONS Magazine, the Naval Safety Center Magazine for Shore, Ground and Industrial Operations, Spring-Summer 2014
As the weather gets warmer, water revelers will head out to enjoy swimming, diving and boating. If you plan to be at a beach or lake this summer, take precautions for yourself, friends and family so everyone can have a great time.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that more than 3,400 people in the United States drown each year. Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental deaths for persons 1-14 years of age and the sixth leading cause for all ages. Most drowning victims had no intention of being in the water. It is important that you and your family learn to swim well since most people drown within 10-30 feet of safety.
- Never rely on toys such as inner tubes and water wings to stay afloat.
- Don’t overestimate your swimming skills.
- Swim only in designated areas.
- Never swim alone.
Watch small children. CDC data shows an average of more than 800 children under the age of 15 drown each year. Thousands of others are treated in hospitals for submersion accidents, accidents which leave children with permanent brain damage and respiratory health problems. Children have a natural curiosity and attraction to water. Remember, it only takes a few seconds for a small child to wander away.
Never dive into lakes and rivers. Every year, diving accidents result in thousands of people suffering paralyzing spinal cord injuries and many of them die before they reach the hospital. Hidden dangers lurk beneath the surface of the water, even in shallow water, including currents, rocks and debris.
- Take a safe-boating course.
- Check your boat for all required safety equipment.
- Consider the size of your boat, the number of passengers and the amount of extra equipment that will be onboard. Don’t overload the boat.
- If you will be in a power boat, check your electrical system and fuel system for gas fumes.
- Follow the manufacturer’s suggested procedures before starting up the engine.
- Wear your life jacket – don’t just carry one on board.
- Leave alcohol behind to increase your safety and decrease your risk.
- Check the weather forecast.
- File a float plan with a member of your family or a friend.
More than half of the people who were injured in a boating accident consumed alcohol prior to their accident and 20 percent of them didn’t live to tell about it. Being intoxicated is not necessary for alcohol to be a threat to your safety. Just one beer will impair your balance, vision, judgment and reaction time, thus making you a potential danger to yourself and others.
Research shows that four hours of boating, exposure to noise, vibration, sun glare and wind produce fatigue that makes you act as if you were legally intoxicated. If you combine alcohol consumption with this boating fatigue condition, it intensifies the effects and increases your accident risk.
If you fall in the water, in any season, you need to know cold water survival skills. Many of our nation’s open waters are mountain fed, and water temperatures even in late summer can run low enough to bring on hypothermia under certain conditions.
Boaters should dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Cold-water immersion causes many boating-related fatalities. It follows four stages: cold shock, swimming failure, hypothermia and post-rescue collapse. Most cold-water drowning fatalities are attributed to the first two stages.
The initial shock of cold water causes involuntary gasping making it hard to catch your breath. Many people hyperventilate, faint and drown before they are able to calm down their breathing. The longer you are exposed to cold water, the more you lose the ability to move your extremities. If you are not able to get out of the water in 5-15 minutes, stop moving. Movement will deplete your energy faster and increase heat loss.
Hypothermia is a condition in which the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Violent shivering
develops which may give way to confusion and eventually cardiac arrest or unconsciousness. Dress warmly with wool clothing. If you’ve fallen into the water, don’t discard clothing. Clothing layers help provide some warmth that may actually assist you in fighting hypothermia. This includes shoes and hats.
Your life jacket will help hold heat into the core areas of your body and enable you to easily put yourself into the HELP (Heat Escape Lessening Posture), which draws your limbs into your body and keeps armpits and groin areas protected from unnecessary exposure (a lot of heat can be lost from those areas, as well as the head).
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Water Safety Program
American Red Cross water-safety tips