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Summer safety series — water safety  

Whether in a boat, a pool or open water such as a river or ocean, even an experienced swimmer can be at risk of drowning if safety measures aren’t followed.

A life ring on a blue background Getty Images

An average of 22 people have a nonfatal drowning accident in the United States each day, and 11 people drown daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As summer begins, people everywhere are looking to beat the heat in pools, rivers and lakes. While the water can be refreshing, there is always a risk of drowning if safety measures aren’t followed.

VCU Health’s summer safety series provides Q&A’s with experts on various topics, from water safety to firework safety, to help you make the most of your summer while staying safe.  

Robert Culley IV, D.O., an emergency medical doctor with VCU Health at Tappahannock Hospital, discusses staying safe in the water. 

Headshot of Dr. Robert CulleyWhat are the most common water safety issues you see?

We see a variety of water safety events during the summer, depending on the area. We can see anything from injuries related to boating, such as motor boat crashes or falling and slipping on a boat, to drownings, to cuts that get infected from being in contaminated water. Most often, we see injuries associated with slipping on rocks, boat slips or docks. Drownings do occur, and we see these most often in young children, but people of all ages are at risk.

 What are the top three water safety tips that you would want to share with people?

  • Swim in groups or pairs.
  • When on open water, keep a personal flotation device available.
  • Don't consume alcohol or drugs, as they can slow your reflexes and impact your judgment.

What about staying safe in the pool?

Swimming pools are often seen as “safe” because the water is clear and they are often close to the home. Swimming pools can be easily accessible by children. In addition, diving into pools that are too shallow leads to neck injuries.  

My best piece of advice: Know your limitations as a swimmer. If you cannot swim, do not go into water deeper than you can stand with your head above water. Not diving into shallow water is another way to practice pool safety. Keep an eye on your children, even if they aren’t in the pool. Children playing near a pool can still fall in. 

What are ways to stay safe in open water, such as rivers, lakes and oceans?

Open water safety is extremely important. In open water, it’s a good idea to swim with others instead of swimming alone. I recommend avoiding any diving because open water is often too murky to see the bottom. This means that diving could lead to injuries because of unknown depth or debris on the bottom.

What are some safety tips for boating?

 In Virginia, it is required for individuals operating a boat to take a course in water/boating safety. Having a way to communicate with others not on the boat is really important. Make sure you have flotation devices and personal flotation devices, such as life jackets that fit appropriately, for all persons on the boat, including children. Virginia law states that there must be one life jacket for every person on a boat and children under the age of 13 must wear life jackets.

Lastly, informing people of where you are boating and when you expect to return is important.  

What are signs of drowning and how can someone help?

Drownings can occur within a couple of minutes and can easily go unnoticed. Most often, the person will be silent in an upright position in the water with their arms out to their sides. The person’s head will sometimes be above water but will likely be very low in the water. The person’s arms will be essentially slapping the water to the side with no effective movements.

The best thing to do to help someone who is drowning is to have someone who is trained to assist the victim. If there is no lifeguard, give the victim a floating device within arm’s reach. Despite the desire to jump in the water to save someone, you can risk your own life. Individuals struggling in the water often drag the rescuer under the water in an attempt to save themselves.  

If someone knows how to swim, are they still at risk for drowning?

Just because you know how to swim does not mean you are not at risk. Many swimmers have drowned. From events such as riptide, to individuals who are intoxicated, to fatigue or muscle cramps, even the best swimmers can face the very real risk of drowning.   

VCU RecSports offers swim lessons for adults and children. Find more information on swim programs here


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