• Chris Ayriss

Could Health and Safety be Drowning Us by Accident?

Updated: Oct 9

Certainly not the idea, the Health and safety ethos protects us from many unnecessary risks; it has saved lives and prevented countless accidents.


But is it working in the swimming environment?


In many ways yes, thinking about potential risks and finding ways to negate them makes organised swims safer and builds confidence in those who allow swimmers to take to their waterways.


It’s doesn’t work when risks are perceived incorrectly.


The Royal Life Saving Society is commendably committed to reducing open water drownings. Yet despite outdoor swimmers being ranked as a low risk group, its public message to date has been crystal clear. “Don’t get in, you might not get out.” So convincing has been the message theirs no wonder that local authorities and water companies are reluctant to open up inland beaches and bathing places for swimming, despite encouragement and guidance from members of the Outdoor Swimming Society, because to do so would seem to fly in the face of reason.

The UK swim indoors policy does not sit well with the wild swimming movement and so we find ourselves at loggerheads when trying to balance safety with leisure outdoor swimming. Triathlon events are encouraged and their is of cause some overlap with leisure swimmers taking to lakes in which more serious swimmers are training, but what about children, families and casual swimmers?

Because we have held the door closed on outdoor swimming for so long, perhaps we need to look beyond our shores for inspiration.

The Cootamundra Herald published an article this week that makes interesting reading: “LOCAL swim instructors have been taking primary school students through their paces, building their confidence, swimming ability and learning water safety strategies at the Cootamundra Heated Pool.


… the 10 day intensive water safety course is aimed to equip children with essential skills. Each day instructors deliver a new safety message, and then they teach survival sequences in the pool. … School principal Bill Godman says that being able to swim is an essential life skill. “The Australian outdoor lifestyle demands that we have those skill-sets to enable us to go swimming in the beach, swimming in the river and swimming in the backyard pool,”

it’s imperative the children learn to swim without goggles so they have confidence to stay afloat in a dangerous situation.


…some parents are concerned that we are asking the children to swim with their goggles off but if you associate being able to swim with wearing goggles, you won’t be able to swim without them,” Mrs Baldry said. …if they fall into a small body of water they wouldn’t have goggles on.”

“In this course we ask them keep their head out of the water anyway; students are treading water, floating on their back, and practicing survival backstroke.” 


Now can we learn anything from down under?


Just this week, Prince Charles has voiced his concern that people’s connection with the countryside is dying. Yet wild swimmers are connecting with the countryside, using village pubs and restaurants whilst promoting countryside tourism. The problem is that many of the British population are ill equipped for outdoor living. Anglers, walkers, cyclists and boaters are all attracted to our beautiful landscape but have little understanding when it comes to open water swimming and survival. Children and teenagers are especially at risk because of their affinity with and fascination for water.


With 1,300 primary schools not bothering to offer swimming lessons despite its compulsory listing in the National Curriculum, and with a less than a 50/50 chance of learning to swim in primary schools that do bother, you can see that much of the blame rests in a lack of education.


Some parents take matters into their own hands and pay for private swimming lessons but even then think, what happens at the end of the course? Either the pupil does well and takes up competitive swimming as part of a club, or if he has no interest in competition swimming as happens in most cases he stops swimming altogether.


Diving facilities are few and far between, leisure pools are designed for non swimmers, their are too few outdoor swimming opportunities inland and so our newly qualified swimmer has little opportunity or desire to practice his swimming ability.

Leisure swimming is not classified as sport and so it attracts little interest or funding. Despite this it is the only way to practice and polish a life saving skill once learned, which in my view makes it even more important than competition swimming, especially when we remember that swimming is primarily a life saving skill. We need outdoor swimming opportunities to flourish if we are going to reduce open water drowning.


Drowning statistics reveal that many of those that drown in open water were thought to be competent swimmers, at least they could swim well at the indoor pool. But when you investigate a little further you discover that such drownings are not surprising. Those whose only experience of swimming is restricted to warm water swimming pools, wearing goggles and then only in appropriate dress, find themselves in difficulty when they end up in cold water unexpectedly. Many find the shock of the cold inhibits rational thought and they flounder. Others find that they simply cannot stay afloat, let alone swim, when fully clothed. A lack of knowledge results in many a desperate struggle against river flows or rip currents in the sea which could safely be navigated if experience and knowledge had been gained beforehand. Our expectations for schoolchildren are so low that the swimming skills they master prove far from life saving.


The Way Forward


The ASA list of outdoor bathing places may have become a thing of the past, but it is hoped that this may soon change as they reconsider their role in promoting leisure swimming outdoors.

The idea that outdoor swimming is inherently dangerous and very risky may have been accepted up to this point. But with the growth of the wild swimming movement, the example of our European neighbors, the rise in competitive outdoor swimming and the voices of outdoor swimmers and regular features in The Guardian; the Health and Safety machine is having its dials reset, and we can look to the future with hope.

It will take a long time to turn the tide on prejudice, but I have lived in the multicultural city of Leicester all my life. The indigenous people have come to accept and love the newcomers from abroad that now make up the majority of its inhabitants. It has taken time, but with communication comes understanding and eventually tolerance and acceptance.

Rather than trying to tame the wild swimmer, the tide is now turning towards respect and tolerance. The idea that all outdoor swimming is dangerous is standing in the way of clear lifesaving education. Schools need to focus their attention not on abstinence but on life saving skill. We teach cycling proficiency on the road for good reason; why then don’t we teach life saving skills in open water? Because the Health and Safety ethos at this present time rules it out.

The Health and Safety message needs to change because it moves us to ignore the real problem. If we tell people never to go into the water we can hardly give advice as to how to survive if they do. We don’t really need to teach children how to swim if their never going to go in! But despite all the advice and good intentions some children will go in. To escape the heat and cool off, because of a persuasive friend, for a dare or to show off, whatever it is they will go in, but because of a lack of education they might not get out! We need to engage teenagers with a challenging and fulfilling swimming experience. We need to bring back diving boards, inland beaches and river bathing places.


Changes are afoot. The Royal Life Saving Society are reconsidering their message and refocusing on education.


The current Health and Safety advice could well be contributing to needless drownings.


Knowledge empowers.


Education saves lives!


#SwimmingandDiving #Openwaterswimming #wildswimming #Swimmingpool #CultureoftheUnitedKingdom #OutdoorSwimmingSociety

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