Water safety

Always keep watch when children are in and around any water. This means actively watching them, keeping them within arm’s reach and not just glancing up every now and then. Don’t assume they will splash and yell for help if they get into trouble.

We live in a lucky country with a real water culture. From beaches to backyard pools, lakes to muddy dams, wherever you live in Australia you are surrounded with opportunities to interact with water on some level. At Life Without Barriers we stress the importance of doing so with the safety of yourself and others in mind.

Drowning and drowning prevention: what you need to know

The reality in Australia is that drowning is the number one cause of accidental death for children under five. Babies and toddlers are top-heavy, which makes them susceptible to drowning. If a baby falls into even shallow water, they can’t always lift themselves out. Drowning can occur quickly and quietly, without any warning noises.

In Australia, children under five drown in:

  • rivers, creeks and oceans
  • dams and lakes
  • swimming pools
  • baths.

Children also drown in less obvious locations like nappy buckets, water tanks, water features and fish ponds – even pets’ water bowls.

For every drowning, approximately three other children are hospitalised from non-fatal drowning incidents. Some of these result in severe brain damage.

Flotation devices

If you buy personal flotation devices like inflatable vests or ‘floaties’, make sure that they conform to Australian Standards – always check the label. You should think of these devices as something to help familiarise your child with water, not as a safety item.

A flotation device is not a replacement for supervision. Always supervise your child when they are wearing their personal flotation device, in case they tumble upside down or slip through the vest.

Never swim alone

If you are in the water with children, it is important to always swim with another adult. Our ever-changing aquatic environment is unpredictable and if you get into trouble in or near the water, you should have someone else there to provide or get help.

Water safety around the house

The majority of drowning deaths in Australia result from a child falling or wandering into the water, particularly into a backyard pool. But a young child can drown in as little as 5 cm of water.

Here are some tips to improve water safety around your house:

  • By law, all pools and spas must be fenced. All swimming pool safety barriers must meet Australian Standard 1926 (AS 1926) safety requirements. Remove any objects from your yard that could be used to climb over the swimming pool fence.
  • Remove any containers with water in them from around the house and make sure your child can’t get to any bodies of water, including the bath, on his own.
  • Use a nappy bucket with a tight-fitting lid and keep the bucket closed, off the floor and out of your child’s reach.
  • Always empty the baby bath as soon as you’re finished with it so older siblings can’t climb in.
  • Empty sinks, tubs, buckets, baths and paddling pools when you’re finished with them.
  • Secure covers to ponds and birdbaths and other water features with wire mesh, or keep them empty until your child is at least five years old.
  • Keep aquariums and fishbowls out of reach of small children. If you have an inflatable pool that is more than 300 mm in height, pool fencing laws apply.

Water safety around backyard pools and spas

To reduce the risk of a child drowning in the backyard pool:

  • Install a fence – Statistics show half the children under the age of five who drown, do so in private swimming pools or spas. Make sure your pool always meets legal regulations, get regular checks and share your certifications with the care team.
  • States and territories have rules about home swimming pools, such as fencing and inspections. For information about your state or territory see below
  • Regularly check that the safety latch on the gate is in good working order.
  • Clear surrounding area – don’t leave any items or equipment close to the pool fence that would allow your child to climb up and over the fence.
  • Pack toys away – don’t leave floating toys in the pool or your child may try to reach for them.
  • Tip out water – empty wading pools immediately after use.
  • Check your surroundings – when visiting other people’s houses, ask whether or not the owners have a pool, spa, pond or other body of exposed water on their land.

Fence swimming pools

Statistics show half the children under the age of five who drown, do so in private swimming pools or spas. Make sure your pool always meets legal regulations, get regular checks and share your certifications with the care team.

State Header
NSW As an authorised carer you must comply with the New South Wales swimming pool and spas laws which include registering your pool and providing a current pool compliance certificate every three years. For further information, refer to the New South Wales Fair Trading swimming pools and spas page.
QLD By law, you must register your pool or spa. You can find more information on the Queensland Government pool and safety laws page.
NT You may need a pool or spa safety fence. You can find more information on the Northern Territory's pool fencing and barrier safety standards page.
WA The Department requires evidence of council compliance for all households with a swimming pool, spa or other body of water. For further information refer to the Western Australian Governments Rules for pools and spas document.
SA All pools and spas must have a continuous safety barrier. You can find more information on the South Australian Government pool and spa safety page.
VIC Pools and spas must have a safety barrier. You can find more information on the Victorian Government's Swimming pool and spas page.
TAS Pools and spas must have permanent barriers. You can find more information on the Tasmanian Government pool and spas safety rules page.

Water safety at public pools

Below are suggestions for reducing the risk of your child drowning at the public pool:

  • Supervise your child at all times.
  • Children under five years must be within arm’s reach at all times and children under 10 years must always be in your sight.
  • The supervision of children in aquatic facilities is not the sole responsibility of lifeguards.
  • Lifeguards are employed on a 1:100 ratio. This is based on the expectation that responsible adults will provide direct supervision of children.
  • Responsible adults are required to provide the constant and direct supervision needed for young children.

Water safety at the beach

Suggestions for reducing the risks of your child drowning at the beach include:

  • Supervise your child at all times.
  • Don’t assume that a beach that was safe in the past is safe now, since the action of waves, weather and wind can influence depth and rips.
  • Only take your child to beaches with lifesaving patrols.
  • Make sure you and your child swim between the red and yellow flags. On many beaches there are lifeguards and lifesavers who help keep swimmers safe. They usually wear a special uniform. When they are on duty (on patrol), they place flags (red and yellow) on the beach to show swimmers where it is safe to enter the water to swim or surf.
  • Teach your child what to do if they get into trouble: remain calm, float and raise an arm to signal for help from a lifesaver or lifeguard.
  • Look out for rip-tides - Currents in the sea can sometimes carry you away from the shore. These are called rips and you should keep away. If you notice a section of water that is running out to sea, looks rippled and is a sandy colour with cleaner water on either side, this may be a rip. The waves may also be larger and breaking further out to sea on both sides of the rip. To learn more about rips, please watch the Rip current identification - Surf lifesaving YouTube video.

Water safety around dams, creeks, ponds and tanks

Children don’t always understand, apply or remember rules, especially when they’re distracted by play. So a securely fenced, safe play area can be an effective barrier between small children and water hazards.

A secure play area can prevent your child from wandering near dams, creeks or other bodies of water, and gaining access to hazards like farm machinery, horses and farm vehicles. FarmSafe Australia recommends a ‘safe play’ area, plus family rules and supervision, as the most effective way to prevent serious injury and death to small children on rural properties.

Here are tips to improve water safety around your property:

  • Fence off the area between the house and any bodies of water.
  • Teach your child not to go near the dam, creek or water tank without you.
  • Secure a toddler-proof lid over any water tanks.
  • Fence off, drain or seal ponds if your child or visiting children are less than five years old.
  • Make sure there are no trellises, ladders, windows or trees that your child could climb to get into the water tank.
  • Supervise your child around waterways.

Water safety when boating or fishing

  • When boating, have lifejackets for all adults and children on board and ensure that children are wearing one at all times. Every year, people die in recreational boating accidents and most were not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) such as a lifejacket.
  • Take care when fishing. Don't be distracted from supervising children around water.
  • Rock fishing can be especially dangerous and a high number of people drown whilst rock fishing. Choose the safest possible location and take time to observe the conditions. Be aware of the tides and weather. Listen to the weather report on the radio before going out to fish. If the report says that the weather is going to change, it is safer to plan to go fishing on another day. Involving children in rock fishing is likely to be a very high risk activity. Serious consideration should be given to whether this is an appropriate activity, especially about whether constant supervision of children can be guaranteed.

Things to remember

Carers can reduce the risks by:

  • supervising children and young people around water at all times,
  • teaching children to swim.
  • taking precautions to reduce the risk of drowning around their home and in places they visit.
  • Being prepared to respond - take a course in infant or child first aid, including cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

You can find more information about water safety by visiting these websites.

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