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Water safety

For most Australians, summer means school holidays, hot weather (though not guaranteed in southwestern Victoria) and trips to the beach. Millions of us spend time cooling off and having fun at the beach at this time of year; it’s part of our collective identity.


Australians’ love of swimming, fishing, surfing, sailing and other water sports is overwhelmingly a healthy thing. Fresh air, sunshine and exercise are great for physical and mental health, as is simply relaxing by the water at the end of a long year of work or school.

Of course, the water also has its risks, but a bit of forethought and preparation can reduce them greatly and make time at the beach, pool, river or waterhole even more enjoyable. In this article, we take a look at ways to negotiate the hazards of our major water-based activities.

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Whether you’re mucking about at your local pool, or fishing, surfing, snorkelling or sailing, the ability to swim is a must for everyone. Many of us had swimming lessons as children. I well remember mine in Warrnambool’s freezing outdoor pool in the mid-1970s – loathsome at the time but conferring a lifelong safety benefit.

However, there is concern that a growing number of children are unable to swim. Research conducted for Life Saving Victoria’s 2013 report Sink or Swim: The state of Victorian primary school children’s swimming ability found that Victorian schoolchildren lacked necessary swimming and water safety skills, with teachers estimating that 60 per cent of Year 6 students were unable to swim the length of an Olympic-sized pool (50 metres). The report also noted that an estimated 39 per cent of Year 6 students lacked adequate water safety knowledge.

In response to these concerns (and prompted further by a coronial recommendation in 2015), in late November 2016 the Victorian government announced that swimming will become a mandatory part of the primary school physical education curriculum. The plan is to ensure that every student can swim 50 metres by the time they finish Year 6, thereby ultimately leading to a reduction in the incidence of drownings.

While this measure seems sensible (and might well boost our Olympic swimming medal chances in coming decades), the inability to swim is not the only contributor to drowning deaths.

Drownings in Australia, 2015–16

Forty-three people died in Victorian waterways in 2015–16, and 280 across Australia. Of the 280 Australians who drowned, an astonishing 83 per cent were male. People aged 25–34 years were most at risk, with 52 drownings (nine per cent of the total).

Unsurprisingly, summer was the season with the highest number of drowning deaths (101, or 6 per cent). More drownings occurred on Sundays (69, or 25 per cent) than any other day of the week.
Sixty-three drownings occurred at beaches; 58 at rivers, creeks or streams; 53 in oceans or harbours; and 45 in swimming pools. Swimming and recreating was the single-largest category of activity of these victims (26 per cent), followed by boating (16 per cent).

swimming-286211_1280Ways to improve water safety

As noted earlier, swimming lessons are an important preventive measure. Children are obviously the primary target, but specific groups of adults– such as recent immigrants and deaf people – are also having these valuable lessons. In recent decades, about 20 per cent of drowning deaths in Victoria have involved refugees, new arrivals and international students. Life Saving Victoria’s Multicultural Department works with organisations and schools to provide swimming lessons for culturally and linguistically diverse groups throughout Melbourne.

Alcohol and other drugs, as well as some prescription medications, can impair judgement and coordination, slow reaction times and promote risky behaviour, so should be avoided around the water. Forty-four people who drowned in Australia in 2015–16 (16 per cent) were found to have alcohol in their bloodstream, and over half of them had a blood alcohol reading above the legal limit for car or boat operation. Forty-one drowning victims had used a drug other than (or in addition to) alcohol; almost a third of them had consumed an illicit drug (mostly cannabis or methamphetamine).

Most people who drowned in ocean or harbour locations in 2015–16 were engaged in boating (62 per cent), and boating was the second most common activity for people who drowned in inland waterways. Boating is a complex activity and requires skill and the right equipment for maximum safety. Lifejackets are essential: they must fit properly and be well maintained. The Victorian Recreational Boating Safety Handbook provides guidance and safety information for all recreational boaters, including sailors, kayakers, canoeists, rowers, wakeboarders, water-skiers and kitesurfers.

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It’s great to be in the water with the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, but – especially if you’re a fellow member of the Scottish diaspora, with skin better suited to the Shetlands than southern Victoria – excessive sun exposure is a threat to health. Swimming and going to the beach pose particular risks, as people invariably expose more of their skin in these situations.

Australians have among the world’s highest rates of skin cancers due to sun damage. In 2015 the health system delivered 974,767 treatments for squamous and basal cell carcinomas – more than 2500 skin cancer treatments every day. It was estimated that 1774 people would die from melanoma skin cancer in Australia in 2016.

Happily, skin damage caused by the sun is easily prevented by limiting exposure to solar radiation using hats, UV-protective clothing, sunscreen and making use of shade. Regular skin checks (for new moles or growths, growths that begin to grow or change significantly, and lesions that change, itch, bleed, or don’t heal) enable potential or actual cancers to be identified and treated early.

Shark attacks

Beaches lie on the edges of oceans, and oceans contain all sorts of marine life, some of which is potentially dangerous. Shark attacks get tremendous media attention, but in fact your chances of death or injury from an encounter with a shark are miniscule.

In 2015 there were 33 unprovoked encounters between humans and sharks in Australia; two were fatal, 22 people were injured and 11 people were unharmed. The average number of fatalities from shark attacks over the past 50 years in Australia is 0.9 per year, whereas an average of almost 300 people drown. Moreover, you are far more likely to be accidentally suffocated or strangled in bed (eight deaths in 2014), die from a fall involving a chair (26 deaths in 2014), or win the lottery (32 times as likely!) than be killed by a shark.

Happy holidays!

  • About the author: Campbell Aitken
  • Dr Campbell Aitken is a freelance editor and a senior research fellow at the Burnet Institute.

If you would like to write an article for our Talking Points newsletter or In Brief blog, email Emma Smitten (emmasmitten@westernalliance.org.au) or call 03 4215 2900.