How to stay safe around the water this summer

Travelling Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 20 December 2019

After record drownings in 2019, authorities urge people to play it safe around water.

Victorians are urged to keep safe around water this summer after the state last year recorded its worst drowning toll in two decades.

The latest statistics show that almost half of the people who died from drowning didn’t even intend to enter the water, according to Life Saving Victoria’s Dr Bernadette Matthews.  

She says almost half of the 56 people who died in 2018-2019 either slipped, tripped or fell into the water and had no intention of swimming.

No Lifesaving Service sign at front of beach telling swimmers to beware.

Tread safely around water this summer.

There were 157 drowning incidents in Victoria in the year to June 30, including 101 non-fatal incidents and 56 deaths – 17 more than the 10-year average fatality rate – and 26 of those occurred over summer last year, the highest in more than 20 years.

Older adults are more likely to drown than children. Life Saving VIctoria figures show a 71 per cent increase in the drowning rate for those aged 65 years and over, compared to the 10-year average, with adults aged 45 to 64 recording the second-highest drowning rate of all age groups.

Of the drowning deaths in 2018-19, 41 per cent occurred at the ocean or bay, while 38 per cent were in inland waterways like lakes, dams, rivers and creeks.

Parks Victoria regional director Daniel McLaughlin urges people to be cautious around waterways and waterfalls. 

“Waterfalls may look like inviting places to cool off but swimming at these spots can at times be dangerous or prohibited,” he says. “There can be many invisible dangers beneath the water, such as strong currents, debris and other hazards.”

If you do go swimming in an approved area, Daniel advises people to never go in the water alone and to be aware of currents and undertows. On land, he says to stay on paths away from cliff edges and to never climb over or behind safety barriers.

Waterfalls may look like inviting places to cool off but swimming at these spots can at times be dangerous or prohibited.

Time in the water in the warmer months also means greater risk of falling ill from contaminated water. 

The Environment Protection Beach Report provides information on water quality at 36 bay beaches and four spots on the Yarra River until next March. 

The EPA’s chief environmental scientist Dr Andrea Hinwood says the organisation is using more stringent water quality standards this summer for the first time to help people avoid water borne illnesses such as gastroenteritis. (More: How to avoid food poisoning this summer)

“The new standards take a precautionary approach to protecting public health, [which] rely on scientific studies linking microbial levels in water with the actual risk of illness,” she says.

Children, the elderly and people with vulnerable immune systems are at the highest risk of getting ill from water-borne germs, she says.

Victoria’s chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton says although swimming pools can pose health risks from germs, there are measures to ensure healthy swimming.  

“While chlorine kills most germs in public pools, some germs, such as cryptosporidium, which causes diarrhoea and stomach cramps, are very resistant to the levels of chlorine used in pools,” Brett says. 

In 2018, 780 cases of cryptosporidium were notified to the Department of Health and Human Services, with six outbreaks linked to aquatic facilities.

Brett says people should shower and wash with soap before swimming and wash hands after going to the toilet or changing a nappy, and never swallow pool water.

Life Saving Victoria’s top 10 tips for water safety  

  • Always swim at patrolled beaches between the red and yellow lifesaver flags  
  • Read safety signs  
  • Avoid alcohol around water 
  • Wear a lifejacket when boating and rock fishing 
  • Never go alone, always swim with a friend 
  • Watch children closely around water, keeping children under five years old within arm’s reach and children under 10 within eyesight 
  • Know the dangers and understand the risks – you can check this through the Beachsafe app 
  • Know your own abilities
  • Refresh water safety skills, including personal survival techniques, swimming skills and water safety knowledge  
  • Be aware of the impact of medication and pre-existing health conditions around water