Photo Credits

Whitewater Rafting in Colorado

Guide and clients headed for a swim on the Colorado’s Gore River.

© Robert Fullerton

Improving Water Safety

accidental drowning victim hoping for rescue

For most outdoor programs, drowning presents the greatest risk of an in-the-field fatality. Many outdoor programs that are not water-focused, and some that are, are not paying adequate attention to water safety hazards. It is important to have appropriate water safety procedures in place, but this alone is not enough. Procedures, too often, are not fully implemented and the cause for this may be inadequate training.

There are no comparable statistics for the North America, but one Australian study found drowning responsible for 36% of outdoor education fatalities in that country. For minors in the U.S. drowning is–depending upon age–the second or third most likely cause of accidental death. Even lacking exact statistics, it is fairly clear that drowning is the most common cause of in-the-field fatalities on outdoor programs.

All water based activities have some risk and will never be 100% safe. Organizations need to determine what water safety risks are acceptable and then go about conducting activities in a responsible manner. Risky activities can offer rewards, but unnecessary risk should be reduced to a minimum.

flipped raft water safety concernIntensive water safety efforts sometimes focus on boating activities like canoeing, rafting and kayaking. The reality is that recreational swimming presents a significant drowning concern for all outdoor programs as do any activities in, on, or close to the water including river crossings and canyoneering. Even if you run a rock climbing program you are likely to be around water at some point and participants are likely to want to swim–possibly the most hazardous thing they will do on their entire program.

Causes of Outdoor Program Drownings

Drownings on outdoor programs can be grouped into three broad categories:

  • No Procedures or Inadequate Procedures: The outdoor program had no water safety procedures in place or they were inadequate or unclear
  • Failure to Implement Procedures: Appropriate procedures were in place and were not properly implemented by leaders
  • Inherent Risk: There is an inherent risk of drowning involved in participating in any water activity that cannot be completely eliminated

The remainder of this article focuses on categories one and two, with a particular emphasis on helping leaders to effectively implement water safety procedures.

Five Ways to Improve Water Safety

  1. Set Limits: Decide what water based activities are appropriate on your program
  2. Procedures: Establish appropriate water safety procedures
  3. Culture: Cultivate a culture that supports water safety and understands its importance
  4. Focused Training: Provide leaders with water safety training customized to their needs
  5. Learn From Experience: Establish and use an incident (and "near miss") review system

Key aspects of these approaches are covered in the rest of this article.


Swimming in Remote Lake Potential DangerAs addressed in OSI’s free “5 Weeks to Better Risk Management” guide, water safety procedures are essential to any outdoor program. Each water based activity should have a clear procedure that is simple, well thought out and in-line with practices at peer organizations. Though many have, some outdoor programs have not completed this fundamental step.

A bigger concern than establishing basic procedures may be the their implementation. Too often water safety procedures are not implemented or a poorly implemented. Why aren’t procedures implemented? Leaders, in many cases, may not take water safety seriously enough. Many leaders will be unaware that drowning is a leading cause of fatalities on outdoor programs. Leaders may also lack the training and technical skills to properly implement water safety procedures.

Culture & Training

Canoe and Water Safety TrainingFor most programs, effective implementation of water safety procedures takes more than having written procedures (which leaders may not read) or brushing over water safety in training. Like most aspects of risk management, an effective water safety program begins with establishing a culture that understands and supports water safety. An emphasis on water safety by respected senior leaders or a presentation by an engaging expert (external to the organization is best) can do a lot to further a positive culture around water safety.

Water safety training may be as simple as teaching leaders to keep participants away from the water or only to allow wading. It may be as complex as advanced whitewater rescue technician courses. As with all risk management training, the most important focus is on prevention. It is always better to avoid a near drowning than to have the skills necessary to rescue someone in this situation. Develop your own training or build upon existing programs such as lifeguard training or swift water rescue to train leaders. As with all outdoor safety skills, OSI can assist with the development or delivery of water safety training for your organization.

Since lifeguard training is mentioned in the previous paragraph some further exploration of that topic is required. Some outdoor programs, especially those associated with summer camps, rely primarily or solely on lifeguard training as the foundation for their backcountry water safety programs. Lifeguard Lifeguard rescue tube water safety equipmenttraining, with its focus on controlled waterfronts, does not adequately prepare leaders for managing backcountry water safety. Assessing the hazards posed by backcountry waters and performing rescues without all of a lifeguard’s specialized equipment requires customized training. Lifeguard training can be part of an outdoor leader’s training, but should not be the only training.

Adults Versus Youth

Swimming in Remote Lake Potential DangerFinally, it is important to note that adult participants present a water safety challenge. Minors may complain, but to some degree they expect to be told what to do. Adults (and families) on rafting, adventure travel, or similar trips may be less accepting of limitations on their activities. Water safety limitations with adults may need to be less strict and it is critical to inform adults in advance of their trip about safety related procedures (water focused and otherwise) that may impact their experience.

What are your thoughts on water safety and how it can be improved on outdoor programs? Please add comments below.

Posted by

Alex Kosseff

on 5/22/12
Field SafetyProgram ManagementResource


This article acihveed exactly what I wanted it to achieve.

By Karyna on 06/20/2012 at 02:09 AM

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