Water Safety a Specialty for Pennsylvania Investigator

June 30, 2009

It’s the season when the floodgates open to all kinds of watery fun under the sun, bringing joy to children and adults alike as they splash in pools and water parks across the country.

But it’s a more somber season for Maria Bella, an aquatics investigator at Robson Forensic who will be crisscrossing the land trying to put together the pieces of what caused that fun to turn suddenly tragic for some of those people.

What she learns can help a jury make a difficult decision or steer people who build aquatics facilities toward safer practices.

“Typically, I get drowning cases, diving incidents that may result in paralysis, suction entrapment, where someone has been pulled into and held by a suction outlet,” she said. “Every once in a while, I get a case where the chemical feeder has blown up on someone, or a gassing at an indoor facility.”

The details can be heartbreaking.

Bella recalls a case at a Michigan hotel where a 4-year-old girl drowned in a hot tub next to a splash pad where she had been playing minutes before.

The girl had accompanied her mother to the locker room after playing and then wandered off while her mother was showering.

“The little girl went back to the area, went to the hot tub, fell in and drowned before her mother even realized she was missing,” Bella said. “That was the first (deposition) I cried over.”

It all boils down to layers of protection and layers of supervision, she said.

The splash pad was safe enough that no hotel supervision was needed, but when the child went back alone there was no barrier between the splash pad and hot tub, and no one around to protect her.

“Drowning is the second leading cause of death in children between the ages of 1 and 14,” Bella said, surpassed only by car accidents.

“Kids drown suddenly, and they drown silently,” she said.

Bella had 30 years of experience working as a lifeguard and swimming coach, running pools and training pool operators, as well as a degree in aquatics engineering, before going to work at Robson four years ago.

“I have literally rescued children drowning in the water right next to their parents because the parent didn’t recognize the signs of drowning,” she said.

In addition to being an aquatics investigator, Bella is the group leader for the sports and recreation practice at Robson Forensic, a national company with headquarters in Lancaster.

The company has experts on everything from car accidents, fires and workplace injuries to food safety, product liability and maritime operations, around 60 who work for the company full time and another 125 to 150 who work part time, said Tom Lacek, a mechanical engineer who’s been with Robson for 20 years.

They are scattered in more than a dozen offices across the country, mostly in the Northeast. About 15 of the full-time investigators work in Lancaster, Lacek said, with about that many more employees as support staff.

Bella said she has a couple of dozen investigators she can call on for work in her department, experts on everything “from ball fields to amusement park attractions and just about anything in between.”

Most have full-time jobs in their fields of expertise, are active in their professional associations and work for Robson part time, she said.

Bella herself is active in several associations, serving on the technical committee of the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals, helping review and recommend changes in the codes that govern that industry.

She runs a couple of businesses on the side, FUNdaMENTAL FITness, which trains instructors on aquatic exercises to help obese children become fit, and Professional Pool Solutions, which trains pool operators.

She also does work for Robson Forensic’s sister company, Fournier, Robson and Associates, the proactive arm of the business that advises companies on steps they can take to prevent the kinds of occurrences Robson Forensic investigates.

“I work with builders focused on the hospitality industry,” she said. “I go over their designs to make sure they’re not only meeting all the codes,” but also doing all they can to safeguard their staff and guests.

“A $200 safety switch on a chemical feed will save lives, but I’ve seen it left out over and over again because (the pool operators) just don’t know,” she said.

“The resort aquatics industry is the fastest growing sector of the hospitality industry,” Bella said. “In places where they can’t put in a full water park, they are putting in features like splash pads and slides… If you put in a slide, people will want to go day after day… It puts heads in beds.”

But sometimes things go awry.

Bella recalls one accident she investigated in South Carolina in which a woman suffered a life-altering spinal injury on an innocuous looking children’s water slide that ended in an 18-inch pool of water.

“She came off the bottom of the slide and hit her bottom on the bottom of the pool,” Bella said.

The problem was that the slide had been designed to direct people down instead of out, she said, and the pad designed to cushion the impact had been removed by the facility’s staff, who viewed it as a tripping hazard.

The people who designed and built the slide had never informed the facility of the importance of the pad or the need to shut the slide down if it was removed.

“These are professionals that absolutely missed the boat and built a dangerous situation that no one seemed to be aware of until this woman got severely injured,” she said.

Sometimes, Bella is hired through Robson Forensic by attorneys working for the injured person, sometimes by attorneys defending the facilities.

“When I work a case, it doesn’t matter whether I’m hired by the plaintiff or the defendant,” Bella said. “The facts of the case are the facts of the case. The codes are the same. The actions of the people involved — or non-actions in some cases — are the same.

“A lot of cases settle before they actually go to trial,” she added. “When they don’t settle, I get called to testify. I enjoy that. I enjoy talking to juries. They have a tough job. The info I have makes it easier for them to do their jobs.”

Although much of Bella’s experience and work has been focused on public facilities, dangers also lurk around backyard pools.

“The most common thing in drownings is the parent loses contact or sight of their child for just a few minutes,” she said.

Children are naturally attracted to water, she said, and anyone with a pool has to make sure there is adequate supervision when they’re swimming and plenty of obstructions to keep them away from the pool when they’re not.

“Make sure your child knows how to swim and is always supervised,” she said, even with a lifeguard present.

“That may mean swimming with a buddy at a municipal facility,” she said, adding that she’s been swimming for decades but will never swim alone.

“It’s layers of protection, especially in a residential setting,” she said. “If you can slow down a child getting to the pool, the parent has a chance to recognize the child is missing.”

That means doors and gates leading to pools should always open away from the pool so they can’t be pushed open by small children, and they should automatically close and latch, and in some cases automatically lock, when they’re released.

Alarms can be installed on doors and windows leading to pools, or on the pool itself to alert the homeowner when there is motion in the water.

“Or better yet,” she said, “get a safety cover so you know the pool is closed off when you’re not watching it.”

Bella has similar advice for people operating public facilities.

“My recommendation would be to get as much training as possible. The more you know, the more money you’ll be able to save and the more you will be able to reduce risk,” she said.

“They should make sure that they know the code that applies in their area, that they’re accurately interpreting it, and that they meet that code at the very minimum,” Bella said.

“Beyond that, the best thing they can do is to have an aquatics professional come in and do a risk inventory to make sure they’re complying with the standard of care and have a safe environment for their guests.”


Information from: http://www.lancasteronline.com/

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