Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death for young children in Canada (Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2005
). Children are more likely to be drowning victims primarily due to the lack of proper supervision (Matthews & Franklin, 2018
). In a recent drowning report from the Lifesaving Society (2020)
, 12% of drowning deaths between 2013 and 2017 occurred in pools. Lifeguards not only act as a means of surveillance of bather activity, but also serve to enforce pool and bather safety rules. In fact, Harrell (2001)
found that bather behaviour was safer with lifeguard surveillance, reducing the risk of accidental drowning and/or pool injury.
Given the importance of lifeguards, clause 17(2) of the Ontario Public Pools legislation (R.R.O. 1990
, Reg 565), mandates the required number of lifeguards on duty for public swimming pools. As a minimum, the legislation stipulates there must be one lifeguard for up to 30 bathers on deck and in the pool. This minimum number of lifeguards increases as the number of bathers increases—though it is not directly proportional. Furthermore, the minimum number of lifeguards prescribed depends on the size of the pool (i.e., more lifeguards are required for pools >500 square meters) (Lifesaving Society, 2018
). However, the origin and scientific rationale for these lifeguard:bather ratios are unclear. One study conducted by Pelletier and Gilchrist (2011)
found the average ratio of lifeguards to bathers where incidents occurred was 2:30. There is a need to identify and synthesize additional research studies in this area to determine the ideal number of lifeguards required to achieve optimal bather safety in different situations and scenarios.
The objectives of this study were to determine differences in lifeguard requirements across Canadian jurisdictions and identify scientific evidence supporting different methods of determining consistent minimum lifeguarding requirements for public pools. To address this aim, a review of the literature and public pool legislation across Canada was conducted. The goal was to ascertain if the existing legislative lifeguard:bather ratios in Ontario are deemed adequate as well as consistent with other jurisdictions or if improvements should be considered to ensure bather safety. The findings of this study can be used to support current public pool legislation of lifeguard requirements and to identify possible areas for improvement to ensure adequate bather safety.
A legislative scan of Canadian provincial and territorial public pool legislation was performed. Legislation was found via CANLII (www.canlii.org/en/on/
). Inclusion criteria were as follows: legislation had to be available in English, from an official governing body, and state how lifeguards are staffed. If no specific ratio was provided, lifeguards were assumed to be staffed at the discretion of the pool operator.
Legislation was then placed into one of three categories: (i
) lifeguard:bather ratios, (ii
) pool size ratio, and (iii
) operator dependent. Lifeguard:bather ratio describes minimum numbers of lifeguards based on the number of bathers that are present in a pool. Pool size ratio refers to the size of the pool relative to the minimum number of lifeguards needed to ensure proper pool coverage. Operator dependent means operators assign a minimum number of lifeguards as part of their pool safety plan (Lifesaving Society, 2018
). Though some overlap of these categories was possible, if legislation was based predominately around the number of bathers, rather than other criteria, it was categorized under lifeguard:bather ratio.
A literature review was conducted to identify and synthesize scientific evidence on methods of lifeguard staffing requirements for public pools. A total of six databases—Scopus, Web of Science, Google Scholar, PubMed, ScienceDirect, Journal Storage (JSTOR), and Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)—were used to locate articles. Keywords for article searches were created based on various combinations of lifeguarding terms. Examples of searching phrases included: “lifeguard AND ratio”, “lifeguard AND scan”, “lifeguard scanning”, “lifesaving techniques”, and “bather ratio”. A total of 20 search phrases were used across all six databases to locate articles. The literature search was conducted from September 2019 to January 2020. Grey literature from governing bodies and lifeguard affiliated organizations such as the National Lifesaving Society were also consulted. Literature identified through this searching process was screened for relevance to the review’s objective and the following eligibility criteria: (i) studies were conducted in a public pool setting, (ii) studies focused on drowning prevention versus other hazards (e.g., chemical hazards), and (iii) all studies were in English. No date limit was set for the article searches.
Articles passing this screening process were then assessed and categorized based on five elements: ratio, scanning technique, scanning cues, vigilance, and zoning. Ratio refers to a minimum number of lifeguards on duty to the amount of people in a pool at a given time (Lifesaving Society, 2018
). Scanning techniques refer to how a lifeguard monitors patrons in the water (Schwebel et al., 2007
). There are various scanning techniques a lifeguard can employ from time scans (scanning their zone within a certain amount of time and repeat) to scanning patterns. Scanning techniques include how lifeguard monitors for cues via eye and head movements. Scanning cues refer to patron behaviour or signs of a victim (National Aquatic Safety Company, 2014
). This can include noticing the difference between a distressed or drowning victim or unusual behaviour. Lifeguards take these cues into account to determine if a rescue is necessary (National Aquatic Safety Company, 2014
). Vigilance refers to a lifeguard’s attention span and their ability to focus on tasks (National Aquatic Safety Company, 2014
). Zoning refers to how lifeguards are positioned around a pool and where their field of vision is for surveillance (Health Safety Executive, 2018
). Zones are established by positioning lifeguards to have a clear view so all areas (bottom of pool, water, surface of water) can be seen, depending on number of bathers, activities, and blind spots (Lifesaving Society, 2018
These five lifeguarding elements were chosen as they correspond to the key factors important for a water rescue from Lifesaving Society: judgement, knowledge, skill, and fitness (Lifesaving Society, 2018
). Articles were narratively synthesized according to these five elements.
Case study analysis
A case study was created to help illustrate the information found in the literature review and applied to Ontario legislation. Two scenarios were created: one with the minimum lifeguard: bather ratio (one lifeguard to 30 swimmers) and a second scenario in a busier public pool setting (three lifeguards to 150 swimmers). These ratios were chosen to determine if Ontario’s ratios are suitable to ensure bather safety. Information found in the literature review was also applied, to help the reader understand how these rationales are important to the ratio and what role they could have in formulating Ontario’s legislation. The scenarios were based on the rationales found in the literature review.
From the legislative scan, the most common lifeguard staffing principle found in Canadian public pool legislation was a lifeguard: bather ratio. However, each province and territory have either a different ratio or a different approach to staffing lifeguards within legislation. There does not seem to be a standard ratio or minimum lifeguarding process across Canada, despite having similar lifeguard affiliated bodies and standards.
For areas where lifeguard staffing is operator dependent, legislation states that an operator must provide a safety plan that guarantees the safety of bathers, which includes some form of lifeguard surveillance (Lifesaving Society, 2018
). In the United Kingdom (UK), where lifeguard staffing is based on a safety plan, operators rely on a standard risk assessment for public pools to staff lifeguards. Such a risk assessment involves a “Lifeguard Zone Visibility Test” (LZVT), which consists of a series of scenarios to find field of view (zones) for lifeguards to ensure sufficient staffing and 100% coverage (Health Safety Executive, 2018
). Testing involves a mannequin that is dropped in the pool, and lifeguards are timed for scanning and spotting the mannequin and the overall rescue. The components that are required for the LZVT are consistent with the key lifeguarding elements synthesized in this review—ratio, scanning techniques, scanning cues, vigilance, and zoning. Such a risk assessment would be beneficial in Canadian legislation, as it would help provide an evidence-based approach to support proper surveillance of a pool.
Based on the synthesized literature in this review, a minimum lifeguard:bather ratio appears to be dependent on a lifeguard’s vigilance and ability to conduct proper surveillance. Though there was no clear statement, many articles in this review touched on the topics of attentive surveillance. More studies may need to be conducted to determine the numerical basis of lifeguard:bather ratios, and corresponding lifeguard effectiveness. Based on this case study of two different pool scenarios under current Ontario legislation, the minimum lifeguard:bather ratio may lead to inadequate surveillance coverage during lower bather load situations.
Lifeguards rely on victim behaviour for scanning cues. As there is only one lifeguard, they must monitor for multiple events as well as for distressed/drowning swimmers, and the lifeguard may scan inefficiently. In terms of vigilance, as per Ontario legislation, operators must provide a second lifeguard for breaks so the lifeguard on duty can focus solely on surveillance. In a study by Pelletier and Gilchrist (2011)
, they found the typical ratio of lifeguard to bathers where there were more incidents than average was two lifeguards to 30 bathers. However, boredom and awareness can become problems as there is a lack of rotation of lifeguards and longer surveillance leads to increased fatigue.
There is a need to conduct additional research to determine appropriate lifeguard:bather ratio requirements and lifeguarding techniques for public swimming pools. A recommendation for future studies could be to investigate existing lifeguard:bather ratios in different pool settings using the LVZT as is done in the UK. Based on a lifeguard’s response time and use of various scanning techniques, this could help to determine the ideal number of lifeguards is to staff a pool under different conditions.