Deaths put pool safety in doubt

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The Independent Online
ONE MINUTE he was safe. The next, toddler Jency Tshilombo was unconscious, floating at the side of the swimming- pool. Despite extensive treatment, the two-year-old died a day later.

Jency's short life ended two months ago on a visit to Tottenham Green Leisure Centre, north London. He slipped away from his father, crawled under a gate barring the way to a closed pool, and stumbled in.

At an inquest into Jency's death, the pool's owner, Haringey council, was criticised by the Westminster coroner, Dr Paul Knapman, The child's father mistakenly thought lifeguards were on hand to watch the child. Dr Knapman said: 'There should be notices making it very clear who has the ultimate responsibility to keep a check on children.'

Haringey, which is awaiting the report of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on the tragedy, is already preparing additional signs. The boy's parents are considering legal action.

Jency's death is one of a series of drownings at pools which has led to official criticism of the operators involved. Safety campaigners and leisure industry sources say the number of deaths is unacceptable and want tough legislation introduced.

Last September, Collette Morgan, aged 14, was found submerged at the deep end of Eyemouth pool, Eyemouth, Berwickshire, while it was in the charge of a 19-year-old, part- time lifeguard.

At the fatal-accident inquiry, the teenager told how he had been left to watch two pools while colleagues gave swimming lessons in another part of the baths. Also, he had been sitting at a point from which he could not see the end where Collette was found.

An HSE inspector said there should have been at least one other lifeguard present, and lights had been deficient.

One month later, Steven McIntyre, aged 12 and a non- swimmer, was found in the pool of the Loch Rannock Hotel, Kinloch, Perthshire, as friends swam nearby. He was on a visit arranged by social services.

At the inquiry in June, a hotel leisure assistant said his duty was to make sure the children did not cause damage. 'I was there for the building's sake, not the children,' he said. 'I was told that supervision was the responsibility of the adults with the party.'

Last November, the private Michael Hall School near East Grinstead, West Sussex, was fined pounds 4,500 over the death of Daniel Kingsland-Monk, aged 14, during a swimming lesson. Daniel, an epileptic, had been dead for an hour before he was found. The school admitted breaching HSE regulations.

Swimming-pool safety is governed by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Operators must ensure that swimmers are protected as far as is 'reasonably practicable', which some, but not all, pool owners interpret as requiring lifeguards. Offenders can be prosecuted by either the HSE or the local authority.

However, investigations have confirmed that HSE guidelines are regularly breached. Three years ago, after several swimming-pool deaths, a report by the Institution of Environmental Health Officers recommended tough legislation to force pool operators to have comprehensive safety notices, after a survey of 687 pools showed that nearly half lacked guards. No new guidelines followed.

The Consumers' Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents carried out a similar exercise a year earlier. Of 19 public and private pools surveyed in the West Midlands, four were 'poor' or 'potentially dangerous'. One camping-site lifeguard said he was unable to watch the pool all the time because he doubled as gardener and cleaner.

Ralph Riley, chief executive of the Institute of Sport and Recreation Management, whose members manage council pools, called for the introduction of a legally enforceable 'certificate of competence', which operators must have before opening a pool.

He said: 'They must reach this minimum standard and keep their knowledge relevant.'

Over the past 10 years, an average of 24 people have drowned in pools each year, compared with more than 500 at sea or on inland waterways. The institute believes that pools in private homes are far more dangerous, but Mr Riley said: 'There is no room for complacency. If one death can be prevented, then it should.'

(Photograph omitted)