Pool & Spa Entrapment

by Gerald M. Dworkin
May 21, 1998


Since 1980, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has documented over 18 incidents, including five deaths, involving children between the ages of two and 14 who were injured or died due to body part entrapment involving the drain of a swimming pool, wading pool or spa. Independent research has indicated that there have been well over 75 such incidents since 1978, and we suspect there have been many more which have not been reported.

In May 1997, a 16-year-old New Jersey girl died in a health club spa during a high school graduation party, when she was held underwater by the suction from one of the spa’s pumps. This incident had been witnessed by other high school students and several high school faculty who were unable to free her from the drain before she drowned. According to school officials, there were 6 – 8 large adult males desperately attempting to pull the student off the drain, but were unable to do so because of the power of the suction drain.

The CPSC has reports of incidents including deaths in which people’s hair was sucked into the suction fitting drain of a spa, hot tub, or whirlpool bathtub, causing the victim’s head to be held under water. The suction from drain outlets is strong enough to cause entrapment of hair or body parts, and drowning. Most accidents with drain outlets involve people with hair that is shoulder-length or longer. Hair entrapment occurs when a bather’s hair becomes entangled in a suction fitting drain cover as the water and hair are drawn powerfully through the drain. In several incidents, children were playing a “hold your breath the longest” game, leaning forward in the water and permitting their long hair to be sucked into the drain.

In addition to hair entrapment and drowning incidents, there have been numerous incidents in which the suction from the pool or spa drain have pulled intestines out of the body. Once intestines are out of the body, they cannot be repaired or reattached.

The suction drain grate in swimming pools, spas, and hot tubs can become brittle and crack over time. In addition, the drain cover may be loose or missing. When a person stands or sits on the damaged, loose, or missing drain grate, the suction can hold you to the bottom. In 1996, ABC’s 20/20 conducted research into this problem which showed that the suction power in a hot tub held a 40 lbs. ball to the bottom and that it took at least 400 lbs. of lifting pressure to remove the ball.

A 5-year-old child nearly drowned when entrapped on the main drain of a spa while swimming. His father, a Firefighter/Paramedic, made numerous attempts to surface dive and rescue his son. After several attempts (approximately 1 minute), he was successful at prying his son off the bottom drain grate.

As part of a comprehensive risk management program, aquatic facility managers should include a daily survey of the physical facility and every possible contingency needs to be considered. All staff (e.g. managers, supervisors, operators, and lifeguard personnel) should participate in this on-going survey. This should include a visual inspection of the drain grates in order to assure that the grates are securely bolted to the bottom, and that there are no breaks or cracks in the integrity of the grate. In order to conduct an inspection of the swimming pool main drain grate, the pump switch should be turned off, and qualified personnel should don snorkeling or SCUBA equipment in order to conduct this inspection.

All facility personnel should be knowledgeable about the location of the Emergency shut-off switch to the pump should an incident occur. This switch should also be in close proximity to the swimming or wading pool or spa.

According to the National Spa and Pool Institute (NSPI) many of the entrapment incidents could have been prevented by complying with their standards. However, at this time, their standards pertaining to body entrapment prevention only address spas and hot tubs, and does not address swimming and wading pools. In 1996, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission set about to develop safety guidelines for retrofitting older swimming pools and spas in order to eliminate potential entrapment hazards. These guidelines were intended to provide information about how to modify and maintain older pools and spas to eliminate potential entrapment hazards. However, without mandatory retrofitting requirements imposed by state, county, or local health departments, these standards are then completely voluntary.

The recommendations stipulate that all pools must have 2 drain outlets for each suction pump. If one drain is covered by a body, the water can flow through the other outlet eliminating the chance of a suction lock. North Carolina is one of several states that mandates this design on new pools. However, only a few states have mandated that older pools be retrofitted.

Several innovative systems have been developed in order to deal with this entrapment issue. The Vac-Alert Safety Valve is a vacuum monitoring valve that easily installs on the pump suction side of a swimming pool or spa during normal flow conditions. The valve ignores standard vacuum reading, but reacts in milliseconds if an entrapment is about to occur. When sensing a sudden increase in vacuum due to a possible entrapment, the valve pistons draw inward and lock thereby allowing atmospheric air into the suction side of the pump. Due to the valves reaction, the pump cavitates and the vacuum present on the main drain is disabled before an entrapment, injury or death is possible. This fail safe unit is easily installed in new or existing pools or spas, and requires no maintenance. This unit may be installed in commercial or residential pools and spas and is available from Vac-Alert Industries in Ft. Pierce, FL.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends the following guidelines in order to prevent accidental entrapment:

* Keep long hair away from the suction fitting drain cover. Wear a bathing cap or pin hair up if you have long hair.

* Never allow a child to play in a way that could permit the child’s hair to come near the drain cover. Always supervise children around a spa, hot tub, whirlpool bathtub, wading pool, or swimming pool.

* If a drain cover is missing or broken, shut down the spa until the drain cover is replaced.

There was an incident in the pool at the YMCA in Peterborough, Ontario in April 1991, when a 23 year old lifeguard got her leg lodged in the drain at the bottom of the one-level (48 inch deep) swimming pool. She couldn’t raise her head above the water to breath, and drowned before she could be released: Apparently the drain cover had become dislodged.

Family calls for inquest after lifeguard drowns at YMCA
Hamilton Spectator April 15 1991

PETERBOROUGH–The family of a part-time lifeguard who drowned in a YMCA pool after her leg became trapped in a drain is calling for an inquest to investigate the incident.

Linda Kosobucki, 22, whoâd been working part-time as a life-guard and swimming instructor at the pool for two years drowned Friday morning.

The pool was closed to the public at the time as Ms Kosobucki and five other staff members were using it to practice swimming.

“We just want to know why this happened,” said her sister, Sandy Hunter. “There’s no reason for this. She was a strong swimmer.”

Ms Hunter said that apart from notifying the family of her sister’s death, no officials have talked to them. The family believes there was something wrong with the swimming pool, she added.

“There are a lot of questions that must be asked and there has to be many answers,” she said.

Coroner Dr. Donald Thompson said the matter is still under investigation and the results of an autopsy performed at Civic Hospital on Saturday would be released early this week.

YMCA executive director Bob Gallagher said it appeared the second year Trent University student became trapped after one of her legs became lodged in the drain of a water circulation system at the bottom of the pool.

The grate and cover had become disengaged, Mr. Gallagher said, and Ms Kosobucki was unable to get her head above water to breathe. The shallow, one level pool is more than a metre deep, he said.

Toronto Star April 15 1991. Following text added under Headline:

Family urges inquest after lifeguard dies in pool.

Emergency alarms sounded and fire department and ambulance vehicles arrived moments later, he said. YMCA staff shut down the circulating pump as they tried to free the young woman from the pool.

She was freed after about 25 minutes under water, but resuscitation attempts failed. She died a short time later in hospital.

YMCA board chairman David Fraser told a weekend news conference that he was satisfied with the way the emergency was handled.

Sun-Sentinel.com Tuesday, July 25, 2000
by Ken Kaye, Staff Writer

While swimming at a friend’s house in Miami last week, Nicole Rodriguez, 11, got too close to the drain. It sucked in her shoulder-length hair and wouldn’t let go. Her brother struggled to cut her free, but she drowned.

State building officials don’t want to see another child suffer the same fate. They have proposed that all new swimming pools be built with a two-drain system as well as other equipment that would ease the powerful suction that can trap a person underwater.

The additional cost to a home-owner would be between $750 and $1,000, which officials call a small price to pay for the extra safety. About 25,000 new pools are built each year.

“The requirement for all new pools to have dual drains will literally erase the problem,” said Thomas Ebro, a Miami-based aquatic safety specialist who investigates entrapment drowning.

While the state’s estimated 1 million existing pools would not face mandatory alterations, State Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, D-Weston, would like all Florida pools to eventually increase drain safety.

“We still have a tremendous problem in general with children, particularly young children, getting sucked into a drain,” she said.

Wasserman Shultz is the sponsor of a law, which will take effect October 1, requiring new pools have a fence or a cover or self-closing, self-latching mechanism leading to the pool area.

Drowning is the leading casue of death of children in Florida between the ages of 1 and 4. There have been three South Florida incidents involving drains this year.

In addition to Nicole, Lorenzo Peterson, 14, remains in a coma after nearly drowning in a north Miami apartment pool June 17. He was swimming with friends 6 feet underwater near a loosened drain cover. His wrist, then elbow, then shoulder got caught.

Daniel Williams, 8, drowned in late May when he got sucked against a circulation drain while trying to recover a ball from a fenced-in swimming pool in Hollywood.

The Florida Building Commission plans to see public comment on the dual-drain proposal and take a final vote on the matter as early as its August 21-22 meeting. If approved, the new code would take effect July 1, 2001.

Rick Dixon, executive director of the building commission, said in addition to two drains, pools would be required to have an anti-vortex drain cover, which prevents hair from getting entangled in the drain mechanism.

The propsal would require sensors, called vacuum breakers, to prevent a person from getting stuck on the drain opening.

“If a child or someone sits on a drain and covers it entirely, the pool pump will pull them down,” Dixon said. “The vacuum breaker will open a valve and let the pressure back into the drain, and that allows the person to push away much easier.” Information from The Associated Press was used to supplement this story. Ken Kaye can be reached at [email protected] or 954/385-7911.

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