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Why positive reinforcement, communication and accountability are key factors
“Culture isn’t something that is created in a second,” says Dr. William Ramos, a member of the Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and associate professor at Indiana School of Public Health.
Ramos managed aquatics facilities for more than 30 years, and he knows why cultures take time to develop. In addition to developing strong safety protocols and prioritizing them, there are supporting elements: leadership commitment, employee involvement, continuous improvement, communication, accountability, positive reinforcement and learning culture.
Creating a culture of safety for aquatics facilities starts with committed leadership. “We must be mission- and purpose-based,” says Nichole Bohner, aquatics division manager for the City of Round Rock (Texas) Parks and Recreation. Those values start at the top. At the Rock’N River Water Park, which served more than 109,000 patrons in 2022, the mission and purpose are embedded in the phrase, “Everyone Goes Home,” meaning every person who comes to our pool goes home to be with their family that night.
Now a rallying cry for the park’s more than 275 aquatics team members, the goal and the promise encompass a lot of visitors and a lot of ground. On average, Rock’N River Water Park welcomes more than 1,600 guests every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The park was doubled in size in 2016 to 150,000 square feet. It features a lazy river, multiple slide towers, a water playground, a 500-gallon dump bucket, a swim-up bar, tipping buckets, floor geysers, a 12-foot jumping platform, a rock climbing wall with a water fall feature, and a drop slide with a four-foot drop into a deep water lagoon. There are cabanas, bungalows, a party pavilion, showers, concessions, restrooms and a general store.
Water park staff positions include lifeguards, a lifeguard training manager, head lifeguards, pool attendants, cashiers, pool technicians, park supervisors and park managers.
Leadership at the water park changed when the park was revamped in 2016, and a commitment was made to meet the challenge of ensuring safety for such a large number of guests enjoying the wide variety of activities and attractions each day. A culture of safety and excellence has been built at the facility through a weekly training and mentorship program for the lifeguard team. That culture has helped keep lifeguard positions filled and garnered recognition of the aquatics programs, including multi-year state Agency of the Year and Aquatics International Best of Aquatics awards, in addition to first place at the Central Texas Aquatics Association’s regional lifeguard competition and second place at the Texas State Lifeguard Competition in 2022.
That statewide recognition underscores another core component of a culture of safety — positive reinforcement. The lifeguard team’s weekly training, skills, competence and confidence are positives that have been recognized and reinforced, as has the park’s commitment to excellence and safety by being named 2022 Water Park of the Year by the Texas Public Pool Council.
Ensuring that every guest who comes to the park goes home each night to be with their family is a safety goal that requires training, skills-building, teamwork, dedication and pride. Positive reinforcement that energizes and motivates is particularly important for a workforce that includes 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds, some working their first jobs.
“When they do something appropriate, praise it. When they may have missed something, don’t let it slide,” says Ramos.
Ramos’ leadership style can be summed up in three words that he says are important to him: “just being present.” He explains, “It is very easy to get stuck in your office or bogged down in paperwork. So, physically being present is important — being seen, making comments, being on deck, letting people know what they’re dealing with. Sometimes when I was probably on the deck too much, people would say, ‘Get back to your office and get to work.’”
When Ramos was on the deck “being present,” he was communicating — another core component of a safety culture. Open and transparent give-and-take, giving feedback and updates, listening, and questioning are essential.
“Give your guards an avenue to tell you what is going right and what isn’t,” he says. “I find there’s often a frustration with some of the guards that they feel like the people running the show are disconnected. I remember once I went to speak to the guards and I asked them, ‘How are you feeling?’ And they said, ‘Well, we don’t think management really understands what we’re going through.’ There were some safety issues with the patrons that weren’t being resolved. Make sure there is that two-way communication so they can tell you how they’re feeling.”
That two-way communication is key to another safety culture must-have: employee involvement. Team engagement in competition, safety initiatives, continuous improvement and a learning culture is created by showing respect for team members’ feelings and building relationships with all employees.
At Rock’N River Water Park, leadership started an incentive program that included social events for team members “because it was what they were asking for,” says Bohner. “So, we offer non-paid social events for the team at least once a month.”
“One thing we’ve done is a waterpark party where the managers will sit on the guard stands and the lifeguards and attendants who are normally running the waterpark get to enjoy it with their leadership filling their regular roles on the deck. We also did a sort of lock-in at the recreation center one time. But the one that has really stuck is our summer prom. It’s an end-of-the-year awards banquet and everyone gets to dress up and have fun.”
Want engaged employees who know what to do and care about what they do — for safety and other responsibilities? Let them have fun. Let them know you care.
Of course, along with fun and summer proms must come accountability — a safety culture essential. The most direct and mandatory type of accountability is top-down. Management holds you accountable and you do as they say — or be disciplined or possibly lose your job. That’s fear-inspired accountability. However, the most effective form of accountability is when employees, guards and others hold each other accountable. In this scenario, accountability is a shared value. At Rock’N River Water Park, weekly in-service lifeguard training is an activity where guards hold each other accountable for participating. Bohner says, “If someone misses in-service, it’s a big deal. Somebody that you work with on a regular basis is not coming to training. It’s like, ‘Hey man, what happened?’
“It’s not always myself and the supervisor calling them and giving them a hard time and finding out what happened. It’s their teammates calling them and texting them and finding out, asking, ‘Why weren’t you there? We went over some important stuff today.’
“We look to our head guards to push accountability. The head guards are responsible for a station and a group of lifeguards that they are in charge of for the day. One of our best head guards pushes his team and makes sure they’re doing all the things on their checklists, all the things we need to do to get ‘Everyone to go home’ safely to their families at night,” says Bohner.
She adds: “We have to check every attraction. Every attraction needs a daily safety inspection. We have several slides, so you have to walk the slide first, then you have to go down the slide and make sure it would be safe for somebody. We’re also walking the facility, picking up trash, all the things that would be maintenance-minded. Kids are responsible but they also want to have a little fun, too. They’re apt to mess around and not pay attention all the time. One way we get accountability [and] get their attention is a saying we use quite a bit: ‘Act as if.’ Act as if it’s real, because we know what we do is important.”
Case in point: “We had in-service training one day that happened to cover seizures and water,” says Bohner. “The very next day, there was a seizure in the pool, a life-threatening seizure. We had never before had a life-threatening seizure at our pools, at least in my tenure. The guards were trained on real people, they knew what to do, and we had a successful resolve because we train to ‘act as if’ it’s real.”
One-on-one auditing of student employee skills and knowledge is the tool Washington State University uses to ensure accountability, to ensure Red Cross CPR, AED, and conscious and unconscious choking scenarios have been absorbed and retained. Approximately 300 students get audited annually. A student employee, depending on if they work in the summer or not, could be audited three times a year — once a semester. Staff members who are Red Cross certified will spend three to four hours a week auditing all employees. Some items on the audit are weighted more heavily than others. Forgetting to call 911 is much more important than forgetting to put your hand on a baby’s forehead one time during a set of compressions, for example.
“If you fail your audit (fail to achieve a score of 80 percent or higher), you have to meet with your supervisor, get reviewed on all the material you were supposed to know the first time, and then take the audit again,” says Jared Lindorfer, coordinator, aquatics and safety education at Washington State University. “You have to take that second audit with either me or my supervisor to make sure it’s going to the highest trained people in the department.”
He adds, “If you fail your second audit in the same semester, you’re actually let go of all your positions because we take this very seriously, and you’re supposed to know this material.”
Continuous Improvement and a Culture of Learning
Lifeguard weekly training and skills building at the water park incorporate the final two pillars of a culture of safety: continuous improvement and a culture of learning. Ramos uses what he calls a “management system” to spur continuous improvement and learning, and his system relies on the extensive line of courses from the Red Cross: lifeguard preparation, lifeguard training, lifeguard management, safety training for swim coaches, first aid, CPR/AED. The Red Cross standard of excellence raises the bar for aquatics facility cultures of safety.
“The Red Cross Lifeguard Management program takes lifeguarding to the next level,” says Ramos. “It covers how to set up a training, how to deal with employee issues, how to make sure employees feel confident and accepted. It’s a fantastic course.
“A culture of safety is as good as its standards. You want to make sure you’re holding true to your standards. And the guards learn the standards, what they are, through training in the Red Cross programs.”
An aquatics facility won’t establish a culture of safety overnight. It takes time to implement the principles described here. But you know a facility has reached that level of excellence when you ask any team member, “What’s the culture of safety around here?” And they say, “Just watch us. It’s what we do every day.”
To hear Nichole Bohner and Dr. William Ramos speak more about creating a culture of safety for aquatics facilities, tune in to the May bonus episode of Open Space Radio.
Stephanie Shook, CPRP, is the Senior Product Manager of Aquatics and Instructors for the American Red Cross.