05 July 2013


Young Scottish and Welsh men, some watersports and areas with the greatest amount of inland water should be targeted for drowning prevention campaigns, according to the findings of a pioneering analysis of water fatality figures.

The research, funded with a RoSPA/BNFL Scholarship, used data on 791 accidental drowning deaths that occurred in inland waters in Great Britain in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Inland waters include swimming pools, lakes, reservoirs, rivers, canals, ponds and water in the home, such as baths.

The project, carried out by Greenstreet Berman Ltd in partnership with the leisure safety team at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF), identified drowning risk factors to help determine the case for improving water safety and targeting campaigns. The NWSF’s Water Incident Database, which is the first valid and complete national database of drowning, provided the data used in the research.

There are about 260 accidental drowning deaths in inland waters in Britain each year - about 60 per cent of the total number of accidental water deaths. When dividing the number of deaths by population or activity participation figures to produce incident “rates”, the analysis found that the rates are far higher for some types of people, activities and areas. The rates were then used to classify water-related risks from “very high” to “very low”.

More water + more people = more incidents: the rate of accidental inland drowning varies greatly between areas depending on the amount of water and the number of people in an area. For example, the rate of death is about four times higher in areas with the greatest amount of waterway, compared to those with the least amount of waterway. The predominant hazard is “open water”, such as rivers, lakes and canals, in which 81 per cent of the deaths that were analysed occurred, as opposed to indoor swimming pools in which just 2.7 per cent of deaths occurred. The majority of deaths (68 per cent) involved “day-to-day” activities such as walking by water.

Higher risk for Scottish and Welsh men: there is a difference in the rate of drowning between countries, with higher rates in Scotland and Wales than in England. When all ages are considered, Scottish and Welsh males are on the cusp of being high risk groups, while Scottish and Welsh teenagers and young men (those aged 15-30) are identified as high risk groups. In England, the risk to males of all ages is close to high in areas with the greatest length of waterway. Males in general have higher rates of drowning than females, particularly teenagers and young men, and also those aged 80-84.

A mixed bag for watersports: nearly a third (29 per cent) of the deaths analysed happened during watersports. There is a broad range of risk levels between watersports, based on the rate of death (number of deaths per number of participants): 

Very high risk - motorboating and sub aqua diving (outdoors)

High risk - angling, sailing, jet skiing, manually-powered boating

Moderate risk - outdoor swimming and windsurfing/kitesurfing

Very low risk - indoor swimming.

David Walker, leisure safety manager at the safety charity RoSPA, said: “There has been a stagnant toll of inland water deaths in recent years which is why this groundbreaking analysis of drowning data is so important; for the first time, we have insights that can be used to target inland water safety campaigns based on a variety of different risk factors. It’s important to invest a proportionate effort into drowning prevention, focusing on where the highest risks are, and the findings of this project suggest that teenagers and young men, particularly in Scotland and Wales, some watersports and areas with the greatest amount of open water would all be suitable targets for drowning prevention initiatives. As with any aspect of leisure safety, however, it is also crucial to consider the risks involved in particular activities versus the benefits of doing those activities - leisure safety is about managing risks rather than eradicating them altogether.”

Many sports governing bodies are already working to manage the risks involved in their particular activities, and this latest research will help to underpin those efforts.

RoSPA/BNFL Scholarships provide support for safety-related research projects that will produce defined, practical and influential outcomes to help save lives and prevent injuries in the UK and around the world. The scheme was established in 2008 with £500,000 of legacy funding following the winding up of BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels).

A short report summarising the findings of the research is available at www.rospa.com/leisuresafety/Info/Watersafety/inland-waters-risk-assessment.pdf.

RoSPA has also issued a hot weather drowning alert today.


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