Keeping Your Head Above the Water: A Guide to Safe Swimming

While cooling off and splashing around leads to laughs and memories, swimming is also extremely dangerous. Every day, approximately 10 people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, two are children age 14 or younger ( CDC ). Given these statistics, swimming safety is an absolute requirement for your organization. Before swimming events, review the risks to determine if your organization is equipped to handle them. It is up to you to keep members and volunteers knowledgeable on swimming safety. You’ll need all hands on deck.


Before planning an outing to the pool or lake, ensure the location is safe. On-duty lifeguards and cleanliness are both a must. For more information on location selection, check out this American Red Cross article on finding safe places to swim.


Always have a certified lifeguard present when swimming, and confirm that he or she is current on certification requirements. These individuals have been trained in first aid, CPR and the proper ways to perform rescue missions. At minimum, there should be one lifeguard for every 25 swimmers. If you have a large or young group of swimmers, request extra lifeguard supervision. No matter your swimming ability, the lifeguard is the expert, not you. Listen to their instructions and ensure your participants respect them as well.


Your organization shouldn’t rely solely on lifeguards for supervision. Make sure you bring enough adults to help monitor the amount of people swimming. Ideally, volunteers should be CPR-certified . They also need to take their role seriously and uphold the rules, which may include:

  • Pay attention and be alert
  • Don’t use alcohol or drugs
  • Rotate and take breaks to reduce fatigue or exhaustion (lifeguards do this too)
  • Listen to the lifeguards
  • NEVER jump in the water to save someone unless you are a certified lifeguard. No matter your swim level or age, a drowning person is also a danger to you. Instead, use the method reach or throw, don’t go.
  • Hold yourself accountable to the same rules as the swimmers
  • Be prepared to use an AED


Monitor weather conditions leading up to your swim event, and have a backup plan for inclement weather, including rain, storms and extreme temperatures (severe heat or cold can cause unnecessary illness). If it starts to rain while people are swimming, have them exit the water before the rain gets too heavy. Never let anyone in the water if lightning is present.

Swim Tests

Have the swimmers take a swim test performed by lifeguards before jumping into the water. The point of a swim test is to determine the swimming ability of each swimmer, and once it’s complete, the swimmers will receive identification (such as a color coordinated wristband) to identify which areas of the water they have the ability to swim in: shallow, middle or deep. Clearly mark and communicate these areas to the monitors and swimmers.

Buddy System

Buddies must stay together for the duration of the swimming day and be in the same swim level group. If one buddy wants to get out of the water, the other one needs to do the same. Be sure to keep a list of the buddies and assign each buddy pair a number. Every 30 minutes, initiate a “Buddy Check” where each buddy pair raises their hands together to be counted by the monitor. This is a quick way to make sure all the swimmers are accounted for.

Swimming Safety

General Rules 

Always go over the swimming rules as a group. Rules may differ depending on the facility or location, but in general, these are a good starting point:

  • Stay hydrated and take swim breaks
  • Use at least SPF 15 sunscreen and find resting spots in the shade
  • No roughhousing such as splashing, breath-holding contests or piggyback rides
  • Do not dive in the water
  • Walk, do not run
  • Never swim alone

Additionally, establish rules on the use of water toys and plan activities for anyone who cannot or does not want to swim.

Safety Plan

Safety plans may vary based on location and group. However, it’s essential that all swimmers and monitors know the safety plan and who is responsible for specific actions:

  • Determine who will call 911
  • Know who will use the AED
  • Identify who is trained in first aid and CPR
  • Develop a missing person process
  • Keep emergency numbers for participants on hand
  • Bring your own first aid kit

Non-Pool Swim Safety

If you’ll be swimming in a natural body of water, such as a lake, river or ocean, there are additional safety considerations:

  • Check for warning signs such as flags to signal weather conditions or possible threats
  • Only swim in designated swim areas
  • Avoid swimming locations with floating docks and rafts, as these are hazards for people to get trapped underneath and drown
  • Confirm that lifeguards are present
  • Make sure there is a shelter available in case of unexpected bad weather or emergencies
  • Have an AED nearby
  • Leave animals and plants alone
  • Inspect the area for glass or dangerous objects before the children play and swim


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© 2024 GuideOne Insurance. GuideOne® is the registered trademark of the GuideOne Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific legal or risk management advice, nor are any suggested checklists or action plans intended to include or address all possible risk management exposures or solutions. You are encouraged to retain your own expert consultants and legal advisors in order to develop a risk management plan specific to your own activities.