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A legislative scan and literature review of lifeguard staffing requirements at public swimming pools in Canada

Publication: Environmental Health Review
15 July 2022


Within the Ontario public pool legislation, a certain number of lifeguards are required for a given number of bathers in a pool at a given time. Of note, these ratios vary across Canada, and there is little to no scientific evidence given for the required lifeguard to bather ratios in legislation or if they are sufficient to ensure bather safety. Our objective was to perform a legislative scan of Canadian public pool legislation as well as a literature review of scientific evidence to support the ratios used in legislation. A case study was also conducted to illustrate the methods found in the literature and apply it to a pool scenario using the lifeguard:bather ratios prescribed in the Ontario legislation. Using keywords across databases, papers were categorized based on five elements that correspond to a proper water rescue (ratio, scanning, technique, vigilance, scanning cues, and zoning). The literature review indicated that more lifeguards allow for a heightened vigilance, an increase in proper scanning technique, as well as coverage of zones. However, more research must be conducted with regards to proper staffing. Additional research should also be conducted to determine the ideal lifeguard:bather ratio, as there is a lack of standardization of these ratios across Canada.


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.


Legislative scan

A legislative scan of Canadian provincial and territorial public pool legislation was performed. Legislation was found via CANLII ( 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.

Literature review

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.


Legislative scan

Table 1 shows the different principles used by Canadian provinces and j1territories for staffing lifeguards. Most jurisdictions (53.8%) used a lifeguard:bather ratio, while 38.5% used operator dependent practices and one used a pool size ratio.
Table 1: 
Table 1: Canadian public pool legislation and how lifeguards are staffed

Literature review

In all, 35 scholarly and grey literature articles met the inclusion criteria. Twenty-nine of these specifically mentioned key themes: ratio, scanning techniques, scanning cues, vigilance, and zoning. The remaining six articles were grey literature that covered all five rationales. Figure 1 shows how articles were chosen for this literature review. Table 2 further breaks down the elements of the articles used for this review. Key narrative themes from these articles are discussed below for each of the lifeguarding elements reviewed.
Table 2: 
Table 2: Category breakdown of articles found in literature review.
Figure 1: 
Figure 1: Flow diagram of literature review process.

Rationale 1—Ratio

Harrell (2001) found that increasing the lifeguard ratio can deter dangerous patron behaviour and allows for higher surveillance and rate of scanning. Additionally, understaffing a pool was reported to cause high information processing demands on lifeguards. Laboratory studies have shown that searching through large groups of people is difficult as it takes more time to find a target (Lanagan-Leitzel, 2012). A common approach to this, as seen by the Lifesaving Society, is the use of a swim test. In a swim test, a bather’s swimming ability is tested by a lifeguard before the bather can enter the deeper areas of the pool. Conducting this test allows for effective prevention (i.e., not allowing the individual to access risker areas of the pool) (Lifesaving Society, 2020). Such a divide decreases the information processing demands placed on a lifeguard (Harrell, 2003).

Rationale 2—Scanning techniques

There are various scans that a lifeguard can use to aid in their surveillance. Visual acuity occurs best in a central position, meaning, a victim is likely to be seen in greater detail if a lifeguard is looking directly at a victim (Fenner, 1999). According to the National Aquatic Safety Company, the ideal scan a lifeguard can use is a full arc scan (National Aquatic Safety Company, 2014). This technique allows for the lifeguard to actively move their head and eyes to sweep further areas of the pool and at their feet (Hunsucker & Davidson, 2013).
An important concept mentioned in multiple articles is the 10:20 patron protection rule. This rule refers to being able to detect a victim in 10 seconds and reach the victim in 20 seconds for assistance, to prevent drowning (Griffiths, 2002a, 2002b). Simulated drowning exercises were shown to increase lifeguards’ quick judgement and can help to reduce the time needed to give assistance (Schwebel et al., 2011).
However, surveillance techniques are still lacking in a lifeguarding course (Page & Griffths, 2013). In a study conducted by Lanagan-Leitzel and Moore (2010), non-lifeguard participants were on par with lifeguards in terms of scanning for victims. More intervention needs to be done to ensure lifeguards are equipped with the proper tools required for an efficient rescue (Lanagan-Leitzel & Moore, 2010).

Rationale 3—Scanning cues

Scanning cues are also important in a lifeguard’s analysis of a potential incident. Lifeguards should be able to distinguish between a distressed and passive drowning victim (e.g., loss of consciousness, does not call for help) and an active drowning victim (e.g., visibly struggling, but not calling for help) and scan the bottom of the pool for submerged victims (Fenner, 1999). However, such events are rare and the ability to detect an event decreases over the duration of a lifeguard’s job (Harrell, 2001). In a public pool setting, a lifeguard is not just looking for drowning and distress but also any dangerous behaviour and activities to help prevent injury like horseplay (Lanagan-Leitzel & Moore, 2010). Lifeguards must monitor for multiple events, and research has shown that those monitoring for certain events or cues stop their search after detecting one target (Fleck et al., 2010). If multiple events happen simultaneously, critical events may go unnoticed with the lifeguard focussing on a less critical event (Lanagan-Leitzel & Moore, 2010). Having multiple lifeguards in the vicinity allows proper coverage in case another lifeguard becomes occupied, meaning a higher lifeguard ratio and more zone of coverage.

Rationale 4—Vigilance

Harrell (1999) found that lifeguard attention decreased over time, as the lifeguard becomes fatigued. Lifeguards may become bored, which causes scanning behaviour to decrease, and an individual can feel less motivated to look for targets (Harrell, 2003; Schwebel et al., 2007). A method to counter boredom is rotation of lifeguards to a new position or zone at regular intervals. It is recommended that lifeguards do not perform surveillance for more than 60 minutes at a time (Griffiths, 2002a, 2002b). Ideally, lifeguards should work within a zone for 20–30 minutes (Griffiths, 2002a, 2002b).
Review exercises of what a lifeguard should scan for have been found to increase vigilance (United States Lifeguard Standards Coalition, 2011). Wendling et al. (2007) further demonstrated that lifeguard perceptions of how an accident or rescue occurred were significantly different from the actual accident report. Such variation in perception could have been attributed to decreased vigilance or where the lifeguard was situated, which can be remedied by in-service training and variation in work schedule (Wendling et al., 2007).

Rationale 5—Zoning

All of the above lifeguarding elements contribute to zoning. For example, changing the angle of one’s position would change the lifeguard’s zone of coverage, which can increase vigilance as it is a new area (Philips, 2010). There are two aspects to a zone: the primary zone that includes a lifeguard’s direct line of sight and a secondary zone that is everything outside of a primary zone and within range of hearing and peripheral vison (National Aquatic Safety Company, 2014). A lifeguard’s entire zone is what they view directly in front of them (NASCO, 2014). If a lifeguard cannot cover an entire zone within 15 seconds, the operator must design the zone to fit the needs of the lifeguard (NASCO, 2014).

Case study analysis (Ontario legislation)

In the first scenario (Figure 2), only one lifeguard is required to supervise up to 30 bathers in a pool that is 25 m long and 15 m wide. As zoning and ratio depend on each other, the one lifeguard positioned in this scenario can only see half of the pool and would be unable to attend to all bathers. (See red area in Figure 2.) For this scenario, the pool is too large to efficiently scan the whole pool within 10 seconds and get to the other end within 20 seconds, failing the 10:20 rule.
Figure 2: 
Figure 2: Scenario 1 diagram of lifeguard zones.
In the second scenario (Figure 3), three lifeguards are provided for a larger pool that is 25 m long and 15 m wide with 150 bathers. More lifeguards allow for proper positioning, higher rates of scanning and more rotations. Furthermore, there are overlapping zones, meaning lifeguards can monitor blind spots within their zone. Comparatively speaking, the red or unsupervised zone is smaller than that of Figure 2.
Figure 3: 
Figure 3: Scenario 2 diagram of lifeguard zones.


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.

Conclusion and recommendations

There is a lack of standardization of minimum lifeguarding standards for public pools in Canada. The studies examined in this literature review tend to support a higher ratio of lifeguards to bathers than what is currently mandated in Ontario legislation, particularly for pool scenarios with fewer bathers and lifeguards to provide adequate coverage rotations and zoning. Public health agencies and lifeguard associations should work with public pool operators to conduct local risk assessments of their pool to ensure adequate coverage polices and techniques.


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Information & Authors


Published In

cover image Environmental Health Review
Environmental Health Review
Volume 65Number 2July 2022
Pages: 57 - 62


Version of record online: 15 July 2022

Key Words

  1. ratio
  2. lifeguard
  3. public pool
  4. legislation
  5. zoning
  6. vigilance
  7. scanning cues



School of Occupational and Public Health, Toronto Metropolitan University, Toronto, ON, Canada
Ian Young
School of Occupational and Public Health, Toronto Metropolitan University, Toronto, ON, Canada
Chun-Yip Hon
School of Occupational and Public Health, Toronto Metropolitan University, Toronto, ON, Canada

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