Make water safety a priority

It's not just young children who are at risk; older children and teens can get into trouble in the water if they overestimate their swimming skill level

Make water safety a priority

Photo Credit: Getty Images

As the May long weekend approaches (Quebec’s unofficial cottage opening), injury prevention experts are urging families to prioritize water safety.

A recent Léger survey commissioned by Allstate Insurance Company of Canada found that 57 per cent of Canadian respondents plan to spend time near water this summer. Yet, while most of us are eager to enjoy any body of water, the survey revealed that swimming skills and knowledge of water safety techniques have declined during the past two years.  For approximately 30 per cent of people, time spent learning about water safety has been reduced, possibly because swimming lessons were on hold because of Covid-19.  

Since the pandemic, more Canadians have flocked to cottages, either as new owners or renters, which has proportionally led to a rise in the number of preventable deaths. According to the Lifesaving Society’s 2020 Drowning Report, 70 per cent of the drownings in Canada occurred in natural bodies of water. These numbers highlight the need for more education and public awareness of water safety.

“There are significant risks involved in a waterfront property, especially if it’s still very new to you,’’ says Wendy Schultenkamper, Director of Operations at Lifesaving Society Canada. ‘‘Spring, especially the long weekend in May, when many people are reopening their cottage for the season, is a critical moment for drowning. Dangers and risks associated with water are always present, so it’s crucial to set clear rules for everyone to follow. All in all, water safety requires constant re-education.”

Last summer had an alarming start

Summer 2021 hadn’t even officially started before Urgences-Santé issued an alert calling for vigilance. The ambulance service organization — the largest in Quebec — recorded a steep increase in drownings and near-drowning interventions in June throughout the Montreal and Laval area. From June 1 to June 30, the service responded to 20 cases – five times more than the four that took place in June 2020.

More than 400 people drown every year in Canada, making it the second leading cause of unintentional death for children and the third leading cause for adults. According to the Canadian Red Cross, every year approximately 60 children aged 14 and under drown, and another 140 children are hospitalized after nearly drowning. And the victims are not just young children; older children and teens are also at risk because they may tend to overestimate their swimming skill level and participate in higher-risk water sports.

Access to swimming lessons is a challenge

Last year, Adam Di Fulvio, president and CEO of the Montreal Institute of Swimming, told Montreal Families that the lack of access to swimming lessons due to the pandemic was a significant cause for concern. “Many children have gone over 16 months without swimming lessons, and the impacts are being seen as kids return to the pool. Swimmers are showing significant signs of regression: kids who had just learned to swim have regressed to non-swimmers, and even capable swimmers are showing signs of rust and hesitation.”

The Lifesaving Society notes that basic swimming ability is a requirement of any meaningful attempt to eliminate drowning in Canada. The Lifesaving Society reminds everyone that drowning is fast— often occurring in less than 30 seconds — and contrary to what we see in movies, it’s silent. To help reduce drowning, all Canadians should ensure that safety measures are put in place.

Vigilant supervision required

According to the 2020 National Drowning Report, in 92 per cent of drownings among children under the age of 5, the child was not supervised or the person in charge was distracted.

It is critical that parents and caregivers watch children while they are in the water and remain in arm’s reach. The Montreal Children’s Hospital cites texting, talking on the phone, reading, consuming alcohol, or talking to a neighbour as dangerous distractions when supervising people in any body of water.

Designate an adult

Whether in the backyard, at a lake, or at a pool party, do not assume that someone else is supervising and always designate a responsible adult to be “on duty.” Even if lifeguards are present, additional supervision adds another layer of protection against drowning.

Restrict access to pools

Private backyard pools are the most common setting where children 1 to 4 drown in Canada. Most often, these children were alone and accidentally fell into the water. Discuss backyard pool safety, and control and restrict access to the water with multiple layers of protection such as self-closing gates and fences.

Based on the safety recommendations of several coroners, the Quebec government amended the regulations regarding backyard pools and spas on July 1, 2021, to make the installations around new residential swimming pools even safer. Homeowners with pools that were installed before that date originally had until July 1, 2023, to make any needed changes and were urged to carry out the necessary work as soon as possible. Recently, the deadline was delayed until 2025 due to construction crews and fence builders experiencing pandemic-related shortages of building materials.

To see if your backyard setup needs additional safety measures, consult the website of the Ministère des Affaires municipales et de l’Habitation. The government also cites other measures regarding water safety, all of which can be found HERE.

Lifejackets

All Canadians are encouraged to wear a properly fitted lifejacket when on a boat. Lifejackets are for every age and ability — even strong swimmers. Remember that lifejackets and personal flotation devices (PDFs) are a layer of protection but do not replace adult supervision. Items such as water wings, bathing suits with built in flotation devices, and other swim toys are not safety devices.

First aid/CPR

Drownings can occur in the blink of an eye and in as little as 2.5 centimetres of water. To minimize risks, Urgences-santé reiterates the importance of  being vigilant around water and wearing life jackets. It also stresses the importance of learning CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) skills. The organization says that survival can hinge on how quickly CPR is performed, with the survival rate of a person who goes into cardiac arrest decreasing by up to 10 per cent for every minute without treatment. Because it is citizens who are usually on the scene of a drowning or incident, they can provide first aid and help save lives by performing CPR until paramedics or first responders arrive. For more measures to prevent a tragedy, visit the website for The Montreal Children’s Hospital (MCH) Trauma Centre.

Cottage rentals

Allstate also cautions cottage owners to properly communicate rental rules and to familiarize themselves with their liability insurance. To protect yourself and renters, provide a list of rules that include measures to limit access to water equipment.

For renters, it is advised to:

  • Avoid venturing into unfamiliar bodies of water – some waterways may look harmless, but powerful springtime currents in rivers, for example, can surprise even the most experienced swimmers.
  • Do not use a watercraft unless you are experienced and certified – If you are operating a powered water vessel, you should have your Pleasure Craft Operator (PCO) card.
  • Basic safety rules still apply when renting a cottage – for example, wear your life jacket on watercraft, do not drink alcohol when boating, have a designated lifeguard, and learn how to swim.