You know Virginia Graeme Baker, but do you know Abigail Taylor? Abbey was a 6-year-old girl eviscerated by a drain in the wading pool at the Minneapolis Golf Club on June 29, 2007. Despite nine months of hospital care, 16 surgeries and multiple organ transplants, Abbey died from her injuries. Do you know Zachary Cohn? Zachary’s arm was caught in a residential pool drain in Connecticut in 2007. Basic actions by competent pool operators could have prevented both deaths.
Naming Abbey and Zac helps pool professionals better understand the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act. VGB is the U.S. federal requirement to protect drains and suction outlets with covers and secondary devices to prevent entrapment. According to media reports, 2018 celebrated a decade of VGB and the “elimination of entrapment in pools.” The reality is less clear: Entrapment is impossible to track and rarely reported in the media or to authorities, especially when considered a near miss (no fatality).
Avista Resort in South Myrtle Beach, North Carolina; Fun Town Water Park in Crystal Beach, Texas; Hilton Dalaman Resort in Turkey; Sandals Royal Bahamian Resort in the Bahamas: Each of these entrapment incidents occurred in the decade since VGB. Yes, VGB only applies to commercial pools and new construction in the United States, but try telling that to the families of the victims.
Entrapment does not only occur in drains, as evidenced at Variety Village in Toronto, Ontario, when someone’s hair was sucked into the basin-side vacuum port. Entrapment is also a concern around water slides and aquatic play features. (Ever notice the buoy line across the deep end of a wave pool?) Entrapment occurred in water slide intakes with broken or absent covers at Commonwealth Place in Saanich, British Columbia, and Hawaiian Water Adventure Park — now Wet’n’Wild — in Kapolei, Hawaii.
Shallow bodies of water like wading pools, spray parks and slide runouts are higher risk. New areas of concern for our industry are decorative features like fountains and reflecting pools — spaces never intended for swimming — where kids cool off in the summer. Entrapment often causes death by drowning, but not always: Salma Bashir started posting makeup tutorials on Instagram (@slaywithsalma) to fundraise for the five organ transplants she requires after evisceration at a pool in Egypt. Entrapment is not just in swimming pools, as evidenced by a viral Facebook post showing a little girl’s hair trapped in the drain of a jetted bathtub.
With all of this information out there, how does entrapment still happen? “One of the biggest misconceptions is assuming a domed cover is sufficient,” says Brent Miller of Automated Aquatics Canada Ltd. in Edmonton, Alberta. Miller is often called upon to size VGB-compliant covers and suction-limiting devices; he also develops entrapment safety plans and inspection checklists.
“Sometimes people are not interested in the difficult truths that come from operating a swimming pool,” Miller says. “It’s just easier to buy a cover that looks like it fits.”
This sentiment is echoed by Maria Bella, expert witness in swimming pool litigation with Robson Forensic in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “[Even] some professional engineers lack the knowledge base to be able to understand suction entrapment,” she says.
What does this mean for the pool professional? Regardless of whether it is mandated, basic safety precautions — mechanical and administrative — should be continuously applied to all residential and commercial pools.
Install properly sized VGB-compliant covers in strict accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Pay particular attention to placement (wall/floor), flow, cover rating, pipe diameter, clearance from frame to pipe and proximity to other outlets. If you do not feel confident in your abilities, speak to a professional. Shortcuts such as skipping anchors, employing shorter screws, not replacing the frame, drilling new holes, making something on a 3D printer, etc. are also called negligence. Where possible, also install a secondary device such as an emergency shutoff switch.
Talk to clients about drain safety and educating children never to play around drains and suction outlets. Organizations like Abbey’s Hope and The ZAC Foundation have excellent free resources to download and share.
When was the last time you visually inspected drain covers and suction fittings at your properties? Get in the pool with a bathing suit once a year or — at the very least — prod them with a pole. If you do not inspect them, who will?
Anchors, bolts, frames and covers all fail; pools contain powerful chemicals that can degrade the lifespan of submerged equipment if not regularly balanced by service technicians. Maintenance is just as critical as installation. Did you change out the circulation pump? Confirm that flow does not exceed the rating of the cover. Are you installing a secondary device? Confirm that it engages when someone hits the kill switch.
Whether rated for three, five, seven or 10-plus years, VGB-compliant covers do expire and must be replaced. Maintain and verify installations records for each property at least once per year. Entrapment prevention is every pool professional’s responsibility. Whether builder or service technician, education and implementation are how we ensure swimming pools remain safe, enjoyable environments. The prosecution of David Lionetti of Shoreline Pool in Stamford, Connecticut, for manslaughter in the entrapment death of Zachary Cohn in 2007 shows us there are consequences to inaction.
Pool Pro Podcast: Has your VGB Compliant Pool Drain Cover Expired? | Episode #45 | with Dewey Case
Ask the Masters Podcast: Should Builder’s Make Sure VGB Pool Drain Covers are Replaced? | Episode #91 | with Dewey Case