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Summer Fun? Waterpark Injuries and Deaths

Reprinted from The Safety Record, Volume 8, Issue 2, July 2011

Earlier this month, a Georgia man died at the bottom of a water slide at a popular Atlanta-area attraction. Sergio Edwards, 21, reportedly a strong swimmer, was found unconscious at the bottom of Lake Lanier Islands Resort’s Fun Dunker. The police officials called his death accidental, but had yet to pinpoint a cause.

Waterparks gained popularity in the 1980s, and today there are some 1,000 such facilities, according to the World Waterpark Association. In 2010, these facilities attracted 79 million people looking for entertainment and relief from the heat. Yet, Edwards’ death underscores that waterparks are also a source of drowning and a range of non-submersion injuries. According to 1998-2007 emergency room data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance Survey (NEISS), 3,819 people sought treatment for injuries sustained at waterparks – making waterpark attractions the leading sub-category of amusement park injuries. Roller coasters and flume rides were second with 3,344 injuries over the same time period. The vast majority of complaints, 1,605, came from injuries while careening down a waterslide.

The medical community has also documented the types of injuries park patrons are likely to sustain. In 2007, researchers documented amusement park injuries seen in two Pennsylvania hospital emergency rooms during 2006. They noted that out of 325 discharge diagnoses, 15 percent occurred on water-related rides; with 18 percent extremity fractures, 18 percent lacerations, 15 percent extremity sprains, 15 percent head injury/concussions, and six percent extremity contusions.

One contributor to these injuries is the velocity patrons attain while rushing down the water slides. A 2007 Australian study looked at their exit velocities at an open water slide and found that people hurtled down the chute at velocities ranging from 1.69 m/s (6.1 km/hour) to 5.63 m/s (20.3 km/hour) – exceeding speeds sufficient to crush cervical vertebrae and creating the potential for a severe head injury from impact with a solid object, such as the sides of the slide or the bottom of the pool.

One of the most serious consequences of these impacts is a spinal cord injury. In 2008, a trio of Turkish doctors documented in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine four cases of spinal cord injuries sustained at waterparks. In each case, the men were injured by sliding head-first down the chute. The subsequent injuries were analogous to those sustained by individuals diving into shallow water:

“Cervical spine injuries are the most common complications due to recreational aquapark activities, and they are almost irreversible. Over 90 percent of these accidents result in quadriplegia, causing tremendous impact to the patient and society. Spine injuries due to diving into water mostly affect young men, and almost 50 percent of these patients present with complete [Spinal Cord Injuries].”

Some of the first medical journal articles on waterpark injuries tagged design features as a culprit of injuries. A 1988 Southern Medical Journal article by Charles Saunders cited a Centers for Disease Control study in which 94 percent of injuries occurred in one section of the slide. A second study associated injuries with sharp turns in the slide, and sliding over the seams or other rough surfaces of the slide. Saunders concluded that waterslide operators should be required to seal exposed seams and smooth rough edges, eliminate sudden tight turns, install non-slip surfaces and cover intake drains with secure grating.

But human behavior is also a factor. In 1998, British researchers published the results of a controlled experiment in safety management at a pair of enclosed, 90-meter long waterslides at a community swimming pool. The paper, published in Injury Prevention, illustrated the difficulties in maintaining safety at waterparks. The poll management installed a traffic-light controlled system to maintain order on the slides, instituted an organization-wide safety culture, and focused on improving user behavior. These efforts failed.

“Despite a battery of safety features including closed circuit TV, citizen’s band radios, a traffic light controlled system, part time supervision, and warning notices, the system was found to be inherently “unsafe” as operated. It placed a small but significant percentage of users in a hazardous situation whereby consecutive riders could collide with each other while in the flume even when conforming with all instructions. The realized risk might have been even higher were not staff and users adopting their own precautionary measures.”

Author David Ball concluded that the risk of injury was high, leaving operators liable for failing in their duty of due care.

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