The day started like any summer day in the south. It was going to be a hot one, just like the heat we are experiencing as summer 2023 begins to bud across America.
My Boy Scout Troop had planned a canoe trip along a meandering river through central Alabama. Being a little older, I was paired with our newest scout, an eleven-year-old boy from my hometown. He was in the front of the canoe, and I was in the back steering.
We enjoyed the day and spoke about scouting and camping trips that the troop was planning. As the day wore on and the weather grew hotter, we passed many shallow parts of the river where he and I had to exit the canoe and drag it across sand bars to continue our journey. In the heat, we took off our life jackets.
After some time, the Troop became spread out and we were alone, just about to head around a dog leg in the river where the water was deep and the current slow. We are almost to our destination where the trip was scheduled to end.
The memory of what happened next will be forever burned into my psyche. My new friend and fellow Scout stood up in the bow of the canoe to stretch and fell into the water. It was at that moment that I realized that I had never asked him if he knew how to swim. I assumed he did. I assumed wrong.
When he hit the water without his life jacket for protection, I could tell he was in big trouble. He was screaming and being pulled under the surface. He was fighting for life and air. I panicked and jumped into the murky river to try and save him
As soon as I got near him, he pulled us both under by grabbing and clinging to me to stay afloat. I fought to pull him to the surface. I fought to save him, and I fought to save myself
The last vision I have of him is his hand above the surface as the black water swallowed him. I was lucky that another canoe had come around the bend and heard my scream for help and pulled me to safety
I was 14 years old and had just witnessed a preventable fatality.
I will never be able to forget that day
I don’t talk about that day much, but I think about it often. I share this very personal and life-changing story because the water has already claimed double digits in lives this summer in the area near where I live and work.
The latest statistics from the World Health Organization (2023) indicate that almost 236,000 people lost their lives by drowning in 2019. Over 50% of those drowning deaths occurred among those aged under 30 years, and drowning is the sixth leading cause of death worldwide for children aged 5-14 years (WHO, 2023). In the United States, ten people die each day from unintentional drowning and – on average – two of them are under age 14. Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death in children ages 1 to 14 behind motor vehicle crashes and for every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency care for nonfatal submersion injuries (American Red Cross, 2023).
Pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, buckets, bath seats, wells, cisterns, septic tanks, decorative ponds, and toilets are potential drowning sources for infants and toddlers. Older children (5 to 17 years of age) are more likely to drown in natural water, such as a pond, lake, or ocean (WHO, 2014). When parents have no/low swimming skills (or competence) ability, their children are more likely to have deficient swimming skills (American Red Cross, 2023).
So how can we deflect these startling numbers of drownings downward in the future? Here are some thoughts.
General Safety Tips
• Pay constant attention to children you are supervising in or near water.
• Swim in designated areas supervised by lifeguards.
• Even with a lifeguard present, swim with a buddy and pay close attention to children.
• Never leave a child unattended near water and do not trust a child’s life to another child.
• Teach children to always ask permission to go near water.
• Do not rely on water wings, swim floaties, inflatable toys, or other recreational float items.
• Place young children or inexperienced swimmers in U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets around water.
Pools and Hot Tubs
• Secure pools and hot tubs with barriers to prevent unsupervised access to the water.
• Ensure that everyone in the family learns to swim.
• Make sure that everyone is clear on what to do in a water emergency.
• If a child is missing, check the water first.
• Know how and when to call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number.
• Have appropriate equipment, such as reaching or throwing equipment, a cell phone, life jackets and a first aid kit on hand.
• Only dive in water clearly marked as safe for diving.
Natural Environments – Lakes, Rivers, Oceans
• Take the time to pre-plan trips for water-related activities involving natural environments.
• Know and become familiar with the hazards present or potentially present, such as:
o Inclement weather
o Rip tides
o Open water (distance, depth, and turbulence)
o Underwater obstacles
o Rocks /debris
o Other activities around you (boating, inexperience swimmers, etc.)
• Always enter unknown or shallow water feet first
• Swim sober and supervise others sober and without distractions.
• Swim with a buddy.
• Use life jackets when appropriate.
• Know emergency action procedures and emergency contingencies.
• Learn to swim and maintain fitness levels.
When preventative measures do not fall into place, potential responders and rescuers need to be able to execute quick measures to interrupt the drowning process. Recognize distress, activate emergency medical services (EMS), and initiate early rescue. Being prepared for a water emergency may prevent initial and subsequent water aspiration, respiratory distress, and medical complications.
Drowning is preventable. Just like the serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) in the workplace, we have an obligation to “bend the trend” of deaths from drowning downward.
Plan, prepare, be vigilant, and make wise decisions during any water event or when you are near any former of water – both for yourself and others.
Know before you go. You just may save a life.
American Red Cross. (2023). Water safety. https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/types-of-emergencies/water-safety.html
CDC. (2023). Drowing prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/drowning/prevention/index.html.
World Health Organization. (2023). Drowning. https://www.who.int/health-topics/drowning#tab=tab_1
World Health Organization. (2014). Global report on Drowning: preventing a leading killer. WHO.
James A. Junkin, MS, CSP, SMS, ASP, CSHO is the chief executive officer of Mariner-Gulf Consulting & Services, LLC and the chair of the Veriforce Strategic Advisory Board. He is Columbia Southern University’s 2022 Safety Professional of the Year (Runner Up) and a much sought after master trainer, keynote speaker, podcaster, and author of numerous articles concerning occupational safety and health.