In The Safety Zone: An Interview With Tom Lachocki

Eric Herman Headshot
photo of girl getting swimming lessons

Ever since pools became a fixture in the American suburban landscape in the 1950s, concerns over safety have come along for the ride. Now, more than a half century later, the pool and spa industry still grapples with the unfortunate fact that drowning remains the second most common cause of unintentional injury or death for children under age four.

Recently, as part of the industry's efforts to address safety concerns, the National Swimming Pool Foundation in cooperation with the American Red Cross released an online training program targeting consumers called "Home Pool Essentials," a two-part, roughly two-hour course designed to teach consumers the basics of swimming pool care and safety.

In reviewing the program, AQUA Senior Editor Eric Herman, a trade journalist with a long background covering safety issues, was extremely encouraged by both its comprehensive content as well as its balanced and empowering tone in tackling this extraordinarily important topic.

In December last year, Herman caught up with NSPF CEO Tom Lachocki for an interview about the program and his overall views of the current state of safety campaigns.

How has the discussion over safety changed in recent years, or has it changed?

Tom Lachocki: I think it has changed largely because the world has changed so much. If you step back and look at the way people consider important issues these days, through examples such as the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party, it's obvious that people are mad. They are angry about things they feel have become beyond their control. When you consider safety and all the debate and discussions that surround that issue, it's clear that people are angry and intolerant of unsafe situations. They want solutions and are demanding answers.

Has the changing demographics of American society with Baby Boomers aging and the desire for cocooning at home influenced the way we regard aquatic safety?

TL: That's a tough question to answer. Certainly, as more people focus more on recreation at home commonsense tells us that safety is going to become an even greater concern.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, at least not for the better, is the litigation business. I read an article in the Wall Street Journal recently that talked about how investors are now investing in lawsuits, which is almost insane in my opinion.

How that applies to safety is that there's a general trend in society that if someone is hurt, someone else will pay. The personal-responsibility aspects of tragedies, such as drowning, just don't seem to matter as much anymore to some people. We've somehow lost track of the idea that it's ultimately a matter of individual responsibility. Responsibility goes both ways. It is everyone's job to prevent injury, illness, and death.

Saying that, I certainly don't want to make a blanket statement that litigation stemming from drowning is always bad, it's not that simple. But we do live in a time that whenever there's a drowning, there's almost always going to be a lawsuit. There has been push back on that with people advocating tort reform and urging greater personal responsibility, but when you talk about safety, you cannot escape the fact that people are intolerant of risk and seek reparations when someone, especially a child, is hurt. Someone's got to pay.

What role has media played in the overall discussion?

TL: Public discourse is driven by the sound bite, rather than by any real in-depth assessment of the situation. If you look at the recent debate over ways to solve suction entrapment, for example, much of it was driven by the sound bite, even though when you break it down, suction entrapment is a complex issue.

It is useful to note that since the Virginia Graeme Baker law went into effect there hasn't been a suction entrapment death in this country. So through it all, perhaps we can be encouraged by that fact. I do believe VGB is good legislation, but the way it's been implemented has been tremendously problematic and in many respects that's been due to the abbreviated way we receive and process information.

Over the years, there's been an on-going battle between safety advocates and the pool and spa industry, controversies over fencing ordinances in the 1990s stand out as a prime example. Yet everyone really is trying to prevent drowning. Do you see more or less cooperation between safety advocates and the pool and spa industry?

TL: Those battles remain ongoing, but you do also see cooperation. At the crux of it there's been a challenge balancing individual property rights and safety. Part of the problem has been ordinances that are written with a one-size-fits-all approach; as is the case with laws that mandate that all pools must have fences. That has resulted in resistance from people in the pool and spa industry who rightly argued that not all situations are same. There are properties where they're effectively isolated from access so a fence isn't the answer, or it's certainly not the only answer.

Fortunately, the focus on layers of protection has brought safety advocates and the pool industry closer in some ways, although the controversies between the two still exist.

Why is it so difficult to work off the same page?

TL: Part of it is there's a fear on the part of the industry that if you put safety on the agenda, that's going to drive consumers away from the idea of owning a pool. I believe that's a false assumption. People who own pools already know there's risk involved, we all know that's true of any body of water. I believe we shouldn't turn away from that concern, but instead hit it head on with a positive message.

Getting back to fences as an example, there's a growing body of evidence indicating that the presence of some type of barrier delays access to the water, which is beneficial. We should view that as a positive because it is part of the bigger picture.

What I find truly unfortunate, however, is that within our industry there's not much focus, not a lot of advocacy behind empowering consumers with the idea that when you teach children and adults how to swim and how to be safe in the water, they can reduce the chances of an accident.

Sure, swimming instruction is not the only answer, but it needs to receive more attention, because anything that we do to reduce drowning, or accidents of any sort, such as head and neck injuries from diving, is the right thing to do and it's good for consumers and good for the industry.

It sounds like you advocate shifting from a fear-based discussion to one of empowerment?

TL: That's really the point. Look, we all know that a great many activities we engage in involve risk. Driving a car is a perfect example; the same is true of almost any form of physical activity. The approach should be that we minimize risk by encouraging people to apply the measures available to them. You don't stop driving with small children in the car because it's risky; instead you dramatically reduce the risk by putting them in a specially made child seat or booster seat.

People in our industry should think in similar terms and encourage consumers to use the safety tools that make the most sense for them including barriers, covers, alarms, life vests and teaching kids to swim and how to be safe in and around the water.

Swimming lessons and safety training seem an obvious area that deserves more attention, yet there's a reluctance to go there for some people, why is that?

TL: The problem is that statistically there's a low incident rate. As significant an issue as it is, the number of drowning incidents compared to the number of people swimming is extremely low. That makes it hard to numerically see the relationship between swimming lessons and drowning prevention.

That changes in places like Asian countries, where the numbers of drowning incidents are astronomical compared to western society, mostly due to the large numbers of people living near or even on natural bodies of water. In those settings, it is statistically irrefutable that swimming training significantly reduces the drowning incidents. No one disputes that.

Knowing that, the question becomes why isn't learning to swim seen by more people in this country as a way to reduce the risk of drowning?

How does that relate to the benefits of swimming and other aquatic activities?

TL: That's the other side of the discussion. When we empower people to reduce the risks both with safety products and aquatic training, the entire discussion can then shift to the profound benefits of raising generations of swimmers.

Not only are kids less likely to drown but they then become involved in an activity that provides physical health, a positive social environment and psychological health they can enjoy through their entire lives all the way into their late senior years.

Seems like a win-win proposition.

TL: I believe you almost cannot overstate the benefits to individuals, families and society at large of swimming and other forms of aquatic exercise. There is clinical data, for example, which has been presented at the World Aquatic Health Conference, indicating that swimming reduces mortality rates among men as much as 50 percent. The markers for aging are significantly reduced among people who swim regularly. The impact of hydrotherapy on ailments such as arthritis is enormous. The evidence of such benefits is astounding, yet in many respects science is just now starting to scratch the surface.

Consider that we live in a time when the cost of healthcare for an aging population is one of our greatest concerns. Through aquatic activity we have the potential of significantly improving the situation, to alter the equation in a positive way.

Look at it this way, when you think about common risk factors, one of the riskiest of all activities is living a sedentary lifestyle. Swimming solves that problem and does so in a way that is fun and brings people together.

Yet, we live in a time when public swimming facilities are being closed in increasing numbers.

TL: That's unfortunate. It's one of my main frustrations with implementation of VGB. Everyone wants to eliminate suction entrapment; that goes without saying. But when you see public pools being closed because of arbitrary interpretation of the law, we run the risk of denying people access to an activity that increases safety, as well as all of the health benefits.

It might sound strange, but I look at it this way. Whose funeral is worse, that of a suction entrapment victim, a drowning victim or someone whose life could've been saved by a healthier lifestyle?

I realize that's a terrible question because obviously any death is tragic. The solution is to promote swimming at every turn, to make people aware of the benefits, and to do everything we can to keep public facilities open and to promote the construction of new ones. And we need to do everything in our power to let consumers know they can take on their safety concerns in a positive way, not from a position of fear.

We all want to live long and healthy lives and die short deaths, as opposed to living short lives with compromised health and prolonged ailments leading to death. Swimming gives everyone a shot at longer life and improved quality of life. When you look at it in those terms, overcoming safety with the proper message and training based on proven reliable solutions shouldn't seem so remote.

And this is why NSPF created the Home Pool Essentials course.

TL: Yes, we want consumers to feel comfortable taking care of their pool and we want them to understand in very clear terms how they can reduce risks.

So far the program has been used by handfuls of people. Our hope is that builders will purchase access codes and give them to their clients when they hand over the pool, or perhaps provide them as a courtesy to past clients, or use them as part of the sales process. Retailers can also have them available for their existing and new pool and spa customers. That way, people can see how they are easily able to address their concerns about maintenance and safety.

There's obviously so much to say and so much to consider, for now do you have a parting shot?

TL: If you ask people to list their priorities and then eliminate them down to just two, almost invariably health and family top the list. Our industry provides the healthiest of activities and a wonderfully positive way to spend meaningful time with family.

Whenever we consider safety and how to address homeowners' safety concerns, we should keep equally in mind the benefits our industry provides.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

Buyer's Guide
Find manufacturers and suppliers in the most extensive searchable database in the industry.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide
Content Library
Dig through our best stories from the magazine, all sorted by category for easy surfing.
Read More
Content Library