Aquatic Entrapment: Prevention Strategies for Pools and Spas

Aquatic entrapment—meaning incidents where a person is sucked, entangled, or otherwise trapped underwater—is often less discussed than other risks like non-swimmer drownings, medical events, or hypoxic blackouts. Yet we know that there have been deaths over the past couple of decades that were specifically attributed to entrapment.

Below are some guidelines and prevention strategies to make sure that your pools and spas are not only compliant with all legal requirements but that you are also taking all possible steps to prevent entrapment or entanglement from happening.

Types of Entrapment

There are five types of entrapment that can occur in pools or spas. Below is a brief description of each and how they commonly occur.

  1. Body entrapment: These deaths or injuries primarily occur when the body is held against the drain by the suction of the circulation pump. Often this is the result of a child playing or experimenting with the suction from the pump.
  2. Limb entrapment: This most commonly occurs if an arm or leg is caught by or pulled into an open drainpipe, or if a child gets a hand or foot caught between a ladder and the pool wall or in some other restricted space.
  3. Hair entrapment or entanglement: This happens when hair is either pulled into and/or wrapped around the grate of the drain cover, or entangled around a ladder or other equipment. It most commonly occurs when someone with long, fine hair has their head underwater—especially if it is near a source of solution like a pump. It is most commonly seen in spas or hot tubs.
  4. Mechanical entrapment or entanglement: This happens when a bather’s jewelry or clothing gets caught in the drain or the grate, or wrapped around a ladder or other equipment. Again, this is most commonly seen in spas or hot tubs.
  5. Evisceration: This rare but extremely serious and potentially dangerous injury happens if a victim’s buttocks come into contact with the pool suction outlet and he or she is disemboweled. Even a small change in pressure can cause this injury to occur extremely quickly. While drains are normally equipped with anti-vortex covers whose dome shape prevents sealing of the pipe opening by the body, that cover or grate may become unfastened or otherwise damaged. Wading pools may pose a particular risk for this type of injury, because young children have access to the bottom drain, due to the shallowness of the water.

Prevention Strategies & Solutions

Fortunately, almost all types of entrapment or entanglement are preventable. And the prevention measures fall into two broad categories:

  • Behavioral Strategies: Your lifeguards and all other staff are educated, equipped, and empowered to enforce rules that prevent risky behaviors.
  • Design & Engineering Solutions: Your pools and spas are fully compliant with, and ideally exceed, all regulations on preventing entrapment and entanglement.

Behavioral Strategies
Broadly speaking, the same focus on a culture of safety that prevents other forms of aquatic injuries, will also help to prevent entrapment and entanglement. That means making sure you have adequate lifeguards on duty, they are positioned properly with a clear understanding of their zone of responsibility, and they are rescue ready. It also means making sure that they understand the potential risks of entrapment and entanglement.

Some specific strategies include:

  • Maintenance & Inspections: Regularly inspect all pool equipment and drains for damage or wear and replace or repair any issues promptly. All pools should also keep a record of these maintenance and inspection logs.
  • Lifeguard Training: Incorporate entrapment prevention into lifeguard training so that all staff know how to recognize the signs of entrapment, respond if an incident occurs, and even shut off the pool equipment if necessary.
  • Supervise Swimmers: Ensure lifeguards are actively supervising all swimmer activity at all times—even staff, lifeguards, and pool maintenance personnel who may be swimming—to look for signs of struggle or discomfort and respond immediately if someone appears trapped.
  • Pool Rules: Enforce all pool rules including no diving near drains, no swimming near suction outlets, and no playing with drain covers.
  • Swimwear & Accessories: Educate and encourage swimmers to wear swimsuits without loose strings, jewelry, or accessories that could become entangled in pool equipment.

Design & Engineering Solutions
In 2008, the Virginia Graeme Baker (VGB) Act was enacted to reduce the risk of entrapment in pools and spas. It also established specific safety standards for pool and spa drains and other related equipment. Specific requirements and exemptions to the VGB Act can vary based on factors such as your type of pool, its size, and the date it was constructed or renovated. Therefore, it is critical that you consult the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and local authorities to ensure you meet all applicable requirements and maintain a safe pool environment for your community.

Below are a few key requirements of the VGB Act:

  • Anti-Entrapment Drain Covers: Pools and spas must have approved anti-entrapment drain covers installed. These covers are designed to disperse suction forces, reducing the risk of entrapment.
  • Safety Vacuum Release Systems (SVRS): Certain pools are required to have Safety Vacuum Release Systems. These devices automatically shut off the pool pump when they detect a blockage in the drain, preventing entrapment.
  • Secondary Backup Systems: In addition to SVRS, specific pools must have secondary backup systems, such as gravity drainage or automatic pump shut-off systems, to further mitigate the risk of entrapment.

Thank you for everything you do to make sure that all swimmers stay safe in your pools and spas.