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Special Report

Waterparks: Is Public Safety Going Down the Tubes?

Waterparks are a popular family destination, but they also might be an accident waiting to happen. Injuries at waterparks appear to be increasingly common, yet no nationwide safety standards exist for waterparks, and some waterparks are allowed to police themselves.

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Six-year-old Connery Ritter was playing in a shallow pool at the base of a slide at a Montana waterpark in August 2010 when another visitor careened off the flume and slammed into the back of Connery’s head.

The collision caused Connery’s head to snap forward with such force that his chin whacked into his chest. The resulting concussion caused bleeding in two areas of his brain.

“The doctor said the force to the back of his head was such that it could have taken his head off,” says Connery’s mother, Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter.

Fortunately, Connery made a full recovery after he spent 2 days in the hospital and rested for weeks at home. The incident left the Ritter family with $4,000 in out-of-pocket medical costs and questions about what could have been done to prevent such an accident. The waterpark never returned their phone calls, so the family has no idea why a lifeguard wasn’t standing at the base of the flume to prevent the boy from lingering in front of the slide. The family also has no idea whether the injury was reported to public officials.

Unfortunately, based on what we uncovered about the waterpark industry, nothing about what the Ritter family encountered surprises us.

Although waterpark operators insist that their facilities are safe and that injuries are extremely rare, our investigation found evidence of increasing injury rates and a lack of nationwide safety standards. The number of estimated injuries that are the result of accidents at waterparks increased by nearly 38 percent since 2009, according to federal statistics, even though attendance at waterparks increased just 3.8 percent over the same period.

Furthermore, the lack of nationwide government oversight presents a troubling environment where the largest parks are allowed to police themselves, while the rest of the waterparks follow a hodgepodge of state standards that make it nearly impossible to compare the safety of one waterpark with that of another.

HIDDEN DANGERS. Waterpark injury estimates that are compiled by Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) suggest that a troubling trend exists for consumers. CPSC injury calculations show an increasing number of injuries at waterparks, which, like other fixed-site amusement parks, aren’t subject to federal safety standards or inspections.

The estimated number of emergency-room visits that resulted from injuries that were suffered at “public waterslides” increased to 5,200 in 2011 (the most recent year of available data) from 3,779 in 2009, according to CPSC’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). The system compiles data from about 100 hospital emergency rooms to create estimates of injuries from sports and recreational activities, including waterparks. Injury estimates for 2012 weren’t available at press time.

The data have limits on what they tell us about waterpark safety. For instance, they don’t categorize the severity of the injury. (Most parks treat scrapes and minor cuts with first aid at the scene.) In addition, the estimates also don’t indicate whether the injuries occurred at a huge park that has long and fast slides or at a neighborhood venue that calls itself a waterpark, because it has small slides and splash pools.

Click chart above to view full presentation

Click chart above to view full presentation

Nevertheless, the data show an increase in waterpark injuries that can’t be explained by a comparable surge in waterpark attendance. Attendance at all North American waterparks in 2011 (the most recent year for available figures) increased to 83 million in 2011 from 80 million in 2009, according to World Waterpark Association, which is a trade group for waterparks. The percentage increase of injuries from waterslides outpaced attendance by a ratio of 10 to 1.

Waterpark-industry representatives dismiss NEISS injury estimates for waterslides and insist that waterparks pose no danger to public safety. Colleen Mangone, who is a spokesperson for International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), says the NEISS reporting system was designed to compile injury data for products that are distributed evenly throughout the United States, such as toasters or bicycles. Waterparks, however, aren’t located evenly, she says. As a result, if the raw data that NEISS collects come from hospitals in areas that have a disproportionate number of waterparks, NEISS estimates might be inflated.

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