Pool safety for hoteliers: how to reduce liability

NATIONAL REPORT—A swimming pool at a property can be a huge liability for a hotelier, but with the proper precautions in place, owners can reduce them.

“While a pool may be a highlight of a hotel property, it is also known within the industry as an attractive nuisance,” said Janet Wright, director of program risk management services at Venture Insurance Programs.

A swimming pool is a major responsibility for any property owner. One of the reasons why is that drowning is a top public health concern not only in the U.S. but the world.

In the U.S. alone, approximately 10 people every day die from drowning—the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury death for people of all ages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide is drowning, responsible for an estimated 360,000 annual drowning deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

To prevent swimming pool injuries—including drowning—over the years, lawmakers have passed a variety of laws on safety at public swimming pools—most notably is the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act (VGBA), which went into effect federally in December 2008.

It is a federal law named for the daughter of James and Nancy Baker, who died in a pool accident in 2002 when the suction from a spa drain entrapped her under the water and she drowned,” Wright said. “The law mandates specific pool drain cover requirements, including when they need to be replaced.”

Another significant federal law regarding the topic requires all commercial pools to have a pool lift installed to meet the 2010 regulations under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), as set forth by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Liability can also be seen in the form of discrimination,” said Jackie C. Collins, senior director and VP of the Real Estate & Hospitality Practice at Arthur J. Gallagher Risk Management Services. “If a hotelier does not have a proper pool lift according to regulations outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the hotelier can be held liable.”

Even though details vary, the majority of states have laws regarding swimming pool signage and fencing; additionally, many localities, including New York City, have their own regulations on the topic.

Many states have also accepted the CDC’s Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC), designed to assist state and local agencies with preventing drowning, injuries and the spread of germs that cause recreational water illnesses at public swimming pools, hot tubs/spas and water parks.

“With increased acceptance of the MAHC, states are updating their bathing codes to incorporate these recommendations by the CDC and MAHC,” said Gwen McNamara, Northeast aquatics manager at the American Red Cross, which Venture Insurance Programs has partnered with to provide access to risk control resources and training programs for policyholders, including hoteliers. 

When it comes to liability, there are numerous ways hoteliers can be held liable for injuries. “Hoteliers can be held responsible for an incident at the pool if they failed to provide a safe environment for their guests,” Wright said. “For example, if a guest is injured by a sharp object on the pool deck, the hotel could be liable. If pool water was not checked for chemical and bacteria levels and a guest was sickened, the hotel owner could be responsible. Or, if a hotel pool gate was not locked and a guest was able to access the pool after hours, the hotel could be held responsible.” The water within a swimming pool can also be an issue at properties, especially if it’s not properly and regularly checked. 

“Check pool chemical levels to be sure they are adequate to prevent bacteria and at levels that do not present safety hazards such as burns and breathing issues,” Collins said. “The levels should meet standards to satisfy the hotel’s water improvement plans. Having sufficient water improvement plans in place reduces not only the risk of injury due to being over-chlorinated, it also reduces the risk of Legionnaires’ disease.”

One of the most important factors to reducing liability is proper signage in the pool area. “In fact, signage is key,” Wright said. “Hotel owners should refer to state laws for required signs and height, including signs prohibiting diving, and children swimming without adults.”

Signage should also be posted elsewhere. 

“The rules and signage that applies to hotel pools needs to also apply to hot tubs,” McNamara said. “Additionally, signage here should include warnings about the possible impact of high water temperatures on susceptible groups. This includes children, elderly or individuals with specific conditions.”

The importance of employees being properly trained cannot be overstressed. “Employees definitely need to be trained as respects pool safety,” Collins said. “All employees should know how to address all of the above items or recognize areas that should be of concern. If the employee contributes to the swimming pool accident, the hotelier will be held liable.”

Despite efforts by properties to reduce swimming pool injuries, some guests are going to do as they please, but the good news is this: Oftentimes, a hotel’s liability exposure is reduced in these cases. “If a guest grossly ignores posted rules, swims while intoxicated, dives when a no diving sign is present or breaks into a hotel pool after hours, the hotel’s liability exposure is greatly reduced,” Wright said. “Laws vary by state and it is the hotel owner’s responsibility to make sure they understand their state’s laws.” 

One way to prevent additional injuries is to limit swimmers. “Limit invitees to hotel guests only,” Collins said. “Do not allow others to use the pool. This can be monitored by requiring wristbands or other guest identification.” 

“A hotel owner has a responsibility to provide a safe environment for guests at their pool,” Wright said. “If they take adequate precautions by performing daily safety inspections, posting appropriate signage for safety and use, maintaining safe chemical levels and repairing unsafe conditions, they will be more well-prepared if an accident were to occur.” HB