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Supervision at public swimming pools

The primary objective of a pool lifeguard at an aquatic location is to supervise patrons within the aquatic environment and to assist in preventing drowning. As drownings are often silent and with little movement recognition by a pool lifeguard is the key.

In determining the level of supervision within an aquatic facility, the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia’s Guidelines for Safe Pool Operations (GSPO), states that supervision should be in place for all swimming pools (both outdoor and indoor) that are situated, constructed or installed, on any non-residential premises occupied by the Crown, public authority, or by a Private body for public or commercial use.

The GSPO provides practical guidance for duty holders on the type, quantity and location of supervision needed within an aquatic environment.

A summarised extract from the GSPO defines supervision as:

At a minimum, supervision in an aquatic facility is a minimum of one person over the age of 18 who:

  • holds a current skill set equivalent to that of pool lifeguard
  • is in a position to maintain effective supervision of all persons on, below the surface and the bottom of the swimming pool (or their zone)
  • is able to respond to and reach a person in distress in the swimming pool within 30 seconds.

Duty holders have a duty to provide the necessary supervision to pool patrons, in order to comply with their duties under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. However, consideration includes what is ‘reasonably practicable’.

The WHS Act applies to the supervision and general operation of public pools where there is no organised recreational water activity. Where a duty holder provides an organised recreational water activity under their management and control (e.g. organised swimming lessons, aqua-aerobics classes), the Safety in Recreational Water Activities Act 2011 may also apply.

Use our Supervision at public swimming pools – Self-assessment tool (DOCX, 0.05 MB) to minimise the risk of safety hazards to staff and patrons.

What is ‘reasonably practicable’ is an objective test

What is ‘reasonably practicable’ is determined objectively. This means that a duty holder must meet the standard of behaviour expected of a reasonable person in the duty holder’s position and who is required to comply with the same duty.

There are two elements to what is ‘reasonably practicable’. A duty holder must first consider what can be done - that is, what is possible in the circumstances for ensuring health and safety. They must then consider what is reasonably able to be done, in the circumstances to eliminate or minimise the risk.

This approach is consistent with the main object of the WHS Act which aims to protect the health, safety and welfare of all workers at work. The laws also protect the health and safety of all other people who might be affected by the work.

Duty holders must take into account the likelihood of the hazard or the risk occurring; and the degree of harm that might result from the hazard or risk.

Although the cost of eliminating or minimising risk is relevant in determining what is reasonably practicable, there is a clear presumption in favour of safety ahead of cost.

The more likely the hazard or risk is, or the greater the harm that may result from the hazard, the less weight should be given to the cost of eliminating the hazard or risk.

Duty holders must undertake a risk assessment to determine the level of supervision required and what is ‘reasonably practicable’. This includes considering what is reasonably known about the risk and ways of eliminating or minimising the risk.

To comply with the minimum level of supervision recommended in the GSPO a pool operator should have a qualified lifeguard on site providing active supervision of patrons. Consideration would need to be given for the lifeguard to take a break, go on lunch etc. The consideration of what is reasonably practicable will assist to determine if an additional lifeguard is required during these times.

Where it is not reasonably practicable to provide supervision as stated in the GSPO, duty holders still have duties under the WHS Act to manage the risks associated with conducting the business or undertaking.

For a small number of facilities, usually in small regional towns, it may be difficult for duty holders to provide supervision as stated in the GSPO. These types of facilities may only have a single staff member rostered on at any one time, in other more remote facilities, public swimming pools may not be staffed at all.

Common scenarios

  1. Would the operators of a small regional town swimming pool be discharging their duty where there is only a single person rostered on who is required to undertake multiple tasks including taking payment for entry, selling food and drink from the canteen, and providing supervision to patrons at the facility?

    The operators of the pool would not be discharging their duties under the WHS Act if the person was distracted from performing their role as a supervisor if required to undertake other tasks at the same time. Where the risk assessment indicates that a supervisor is required, then the operator would need to introduce additional controls to allow the supervisor to perform their role without distraction. This could be achieved by employing an additional person to undertake work other than supervising, or by excluding patrons from the pool until the supervisor can perform their role unhindered (e.g. timed sessions).

  2. Would it be acceptable for a duty holder to discharge their obligations for supervision at a public swimming pool with no lifeguards by only erecting signage?


    Where it is not reasonably practicable to have a lifeguard on duty, the risks associated with the recreational water activity must still be managed. The operators must ensure that patrons are aware of the risk associated with unsupervised swimming at a public swimming pool.

    Suitable signage and information provided to patrons by the duty holder may be acceptable where the duty holder can demonstrate that a lifeguard is not required in addition to other controls.

    If there is no lifeguard on duty the duty holder should:

    • obtain confirmation from patrons that they understand the pool is operating without a lifeguard
    • exclude at risk swimmers from the facility
    • ensure alternate rescue facilitates are available.

    There are limited circumstances where it is not reasonably practicable to have a lifeguard on duty.

  3. Would a duty holder discharge their obligations in regard to supervision if they followed Royal Life Saving Australia Guideline Aquatic Supervision - For safe pool operations?

The RSLA guideline can be referenced as evidence of the industry standard and used as guidance by pool operators in a similar manner to the Regulator referring people to Safe Work Australia material or Australian Standards for guidance. If the duty holder has complied with the guideline (as an example of the best practice industry standard for managing risks associated with pool supervision) then it may be sufficient to comply with their duties under the relevant legislation the WHS Act, however, all circumstances which relate to what is reasonably practicable must also be considered.