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Healthy for life: Water safety

Accidents can happen when you’re in the water. Learn the basics of water safety so that you and your loved ones can avoid injury.

  1. What is water safety, and why is it so important?
  2. What are the risks of doing activities in or around the water?
  3. How can I keep myself and my family safe in the water?
  4. What equipment is important for water safety?
  5. What can I do during a water emergency?
  6. What types of insurance can help me if I have a water-related accident?

There’s nothing like relaxing at the pool or by the ocean on a beautiful day. But the sad reality is that things can turn dangerous in an instant. That’s why it’s so vital to know how to stay safe in the water, to protect yourself and the ones you love.

Read on to learn more about water safety, what to do in an emergency and more.

What is water safety and why is it so important?

Water safety refers to all the things you can do around bodies of water — pools, oceans, rivers, lakes — to lower your chances of getting injured or potentially even drowning.

Every day in the United States, an average of 11 people die from drowning. There are also an average of 22 nonfatal drownings every day, many of which can lead to serious long-term disabilities. Drowning is the leading cause of injury death among children ages 1 to 4. And it’s the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in children ages 1 to 14, after motor vehicle crashes.

“One of the most common things we hear from families after a drowning incident is the words ‘I didn’t know,’” says Adam Katchmarchi, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, based in Tustin, California. “Most people are unaware that drowning is a leading cause of death, how to recognize drowning, and the steps they can take to lower their risk.”

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What are the risks of doing activities in or around water?

With open bodies of water such as rivers and oceans, there are many risks. For example, in an ocean setting, unseen rip currents can sweep you away. On a calm lake, you may get an unexpected cramp while doing stand-up paddleboarding and need immediate assistance. In any body of water, cold water can shock and impair you. There may even be underwater hazards such as vegetation, rocks and other obstacles you could get stuck on. Depending on where you are, there may even be dangerous wildlife such as sharks or stingrays that could lead to unexpected accidents.

“An emergency can happen to anyone in or around the water, regardless of swimming ability,” says Lindsay Mondick, director of aquatics safety at the YMCA in Chicago. “For example, a strong swimmer can get into trouble in the water because of sudden illness or injury. Or a nonswimmer playing in shallow water can be knocked down by a wave or pulled into deeper water by a rip current.”

To stay safe, she adds, “understand how risks vary with conditions, such as water depth, water clarity and currents, and adjust supervision and activities as needed.”

How can I keep myself and my family safe in the water?

You can help keep yourself and your family safe in the water by following these steps:

1. Learn how to swim. Although most Americans claim they can swim, less than half can do all 5 of these basic swimming skills that can save your life:

  • Step or jump into water that’s higher than your head.
  • Return to the surface and float or tread water for 1 minute.
  • Turn around in a full circle and find an exit route.
  • Swim 25 yards to the exit without stopping.
  • Exit the water — and if you’re in a pool, do so without using the ladder.

For children and young adults, formal swimming lessons can lower the chances of drowning. “Sign children up for swimming lessons,” Mondick says. “Swimming is an essential skill, not a privilege.” And you can start them young. The best time to start swimming lessons is between ages 1 and 4.

2. Learn CPR. Because it might take time for emergency services to arrive, having cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) skills can be a big help. (That’s an emergency lifesaving procedure performed when the heart stops beating.) “Drowning is silent and happens fast,” explains Katchmarchi. “Knowing CPR can be the difference between life and death.” The American Red Cross and American Heart Association offer CPR training online and in person at locations across the country.

3. Never swim alone. “Always having adult supervision when a child is in, near or around water is critically important,” says Katchmarchi. “Teach children to ask permission to enter any body of water — bathtub, pool, even a small stream behind your house,” Mondick adds.

Keep in mind that young children can drown in even a few inches of water. So, it’s vital for supervisors to be within arm’s reach and be constantly aware.

Also, regardless of age, always swim in designated areas, with lifeguards or other water watchers on duty. It’s always a good idea to swim with someone else too. It might be tempting to rely on lifeguards as your “swim buddy,” but a lifeguard has to be responsible for many people across a large area. It’s much safer to have someone personally watching you.

If you have a pool in your backyard, make sure your kids cannot get to it on their own. “Four-sided fencing with self-closing, self-latching gates, door and window alarms, and safety covers can help make sure kids don’t get to the water unsupervised,” says Katchmarchi.

4. Wear a life jacket. In 2022, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that 85% of people who drowned to death in boating accidents were not wearing a life jacket.

“Wearing a life jacket is a simple lifesaving technique. More people need to know when to wear and how to choose a life jacket,” says Mondick. She explains that anyone doing any boating, paddling or towed water sports must wear a life jacket, regardless of their swimming ability. Many states have laws about life jackets, so be sure to follow all local regulations.

5. Know your limits. Don’t swim too far from land if you aren’t a strong swimmer or if the water conditions are beyond your skill level. Remember: Your ability to swim changes dramatically with the environment. “Swimming in an 85-degree pool with no current is considerably different than unexpectedly falling into freezing water that has a current,” Katchmarchi says.

Know the tides so that rising water doesn’t trap you. And beware of extremely cold water, which can sap your strength.

Also, watch the waves when arriving at the beach. You can double the height of the highest wave you see to estimate how high the waves might get.

6. Stay sober while doing water activities. Alcohol is involved in up to 70% of deaths associated with water recreation and about 1 in 5 boating deaths. Avoid drug use too. This includes certain prescription medications that can impair your thinking, judgment and physical abilities.

By doing all these steps together, you create “layers” of protection. “Using all layers together is the only way to lower the chance of drowning,” says Katchmarchi. “You never know which layer will save a life.”

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What equipment is important for water safety?

When boating, there are some items that are vital for keeping you safe besides life jackets. In fact, federal and state laws require your vessel to have specific equipment on board, such as:

  • Backfire flame control (this prevents sparks from your engine backfiring from causing an onboard fire)
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Marine sanitation devices (these treat or retain sewage from vessels)
  • Navigation lights
  • Proper ventilation
  • Sound-producing devices
  • Visual distress signals

Make sure you follow all the various regulations. They may end up saving you from potential fines or even saving your life.

Depending on your boating activities, consider bringing additional items along like:

  • A change of dry clothing
  • Extra food and water
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlights
  • Fully charged mobile phone
  • Map and directions to an emergency shelter
  • Sunscreen

Any number of scenarios can happen during a day on the water. While it’s good to be prepared for a fun day out in the sun, both weather and events can change quickly. So, it’s also a good idea to be prepared for an emergency, accident or injury.

Be prepared for an unexpected accident. Explore supplemental accident insurance plan options, or contact a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 for more information.

Tips for choosing the right life jacket

Yeah, it’s not super stylish having to wear a life jacket while you’re aboard your boat. But given the number of people who drown in boating accidents who aren’t wearing a life jacket, it’s an important thing to do.

What kind of life jacket is best? Choose a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)–approved life jacket that’s a good fit for your weight and size and water activity.

“Life jackets that are too big will cause the flotation device to push up around your face, which could be dangerous,” Mondick says. “Life jackets that are too small may not be able to keep your body afloat.”

Here are some additional tips to help make sure your life jacket fits properly:

  • Check for fit by raising your arms above your head while wearing the life jacket. Ask someone to grab the top of the arm openings and gently pull up. The life jacket should not ride up over your chin or face.
  • Make sure there is no excess room above the arm and neck openings. A comfortably snug fit in those areas shows that the life jacket fits properly.

Also, pick a bright-colored life jacket so that it’s easy for others to see. You might want to attach a whistle and emergency light to your vest to help search and rescue teams find you if your boat capsizes or you accidentally fall overboard.

“Air-filled arm floaties, inflatable rafts and other non-USCG tested and approved flotation devices are toys. They should not be used as a lifesaving device,” Katchmarchi cautions.

What can I do during a water emergency?

This may seem like obvious advice, but the most important thing is to stay calm if you’re in the water. Your life jacket will keep you afloat, so don’t waste energy thrashing around. Also, keep your clothing on, because the trapped air in your clothes can help you float.

If the water is cold, get into the HELP position, which stands for Heat Escape Lessening Position. Bring your knees up to your chest, cross your ankles, and then cross your arms over your chest by hugging your life jacket. This position will help keep your body from losing heat.

If you can get to shore safely, start swimming. But be aware of how visible you are (or not), to avoid being accidentally struck by another vessel.

Know the warning signs of distress and drowning

You may have seen movies where people are in distress or drowning in the water — but reality doesn’t always look like Hollywood.

“Many people think drowning is a pronounced event with the victim shouting, screaming and splashing,” Katchmarchi says. “That is often not the case. It does not happen like it does in TV and movies.”

Mondick shares some common signs of a distressed swimmer:

  • Kicking to try to stay upright, with the kicking providing no forward progress
  • Being vertical in the water
  • Tilting the head back to aid with breathing
  • Holding the arms out to the side
  • Trying to reach or look toward safety
  • Trying to wave or shout for help

Characteristics of drowning victims include:

  • An inability to call for help and a panicked facial expression
  • Head back and mouth at water level
  • Arms extended out from the sides and moving up and down ineffectively, to keep the face out of the water and to breathe
  • Little to no support from a kick
  • An upright (vertical) position facing the nearest source of help

If you see someone in distress, the American Red Cross advises that you “reach or throw, don’t go.” Do not get in the water to help the person. Instead, try to reach over and grab them out of the water or throw them a life preserver.

Why? Because there might not be anyone to save you if you get in trouble.

“A drowning victim can grab on to an untrained person and cause them to become a second victim,” Katchmarchi warns. “Reaching or throwing something to a victim from land is the safest action for an untrained rescuer.”

Finally, call emergency medical services (EMS). “Give aid consistent with your knowledge and training until EMS arrives and takes over,” Mondick says.

What types of insurance can help me if I have a water-related accident?

Water accidents and injuries can happen unexpectedly and have long-term and costly consequences. Medical bills can pile up because of unforeseen issues. Here are a few types of insurance that could come in handy:

  • For help with health care costs, you might consider accident insurance. It pays you or your provider directly for eligible injuries and services that may not be completely covered by your health insurance plan. Lump sum payments can help you pay out-of-pocket medical costs like copays and deductibles, or any other expenses you may have while you’re hurt and missing work.

Accident insurance typically pays a set amount for injuries such as concussions, bone fractures, and severe cuts and burns. It may also pay for services and treatments related to your injuries, such as ambulance rides, hospital stays, labs, x-rays and surgery. You can also appoint beneficiaries who will get payments if your injury causes death.

  • If you’re in a water accident abroad, travel medical insurance can be a big help. Many health plans don’t cover you while you’re abroad, and if they do, the coverage is often limited. This could lead to your having to spend thousands of dollars.

Find a supplemental health insurance plan for you or your family by exploring available plans, or calling a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 to discuss your options.


American Red Cross. “Water safety.” Retrieved from Accessed February 22, 2024

American Red Cross: North Texas Region. “American Red Cross stresses vigilance and strong swimming skills as keys to water safety during Water Safety Month.” May 25, 2022. Retrieved from

California Division of Boating and Waterways. “Life jackets.” Retrieved from Accessed February 22, 2024

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Drowning facts.” January 2, 2024. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Drowning prevention.” October 7, 2022. Retrieved from

National Park Service. “Water hazards.” April 25, 2022. Retrieved from

National Weather Service. “Cold water hazards and safety.” Retrieved from Accessed February 22, 2024

UC Davis Health. “Preventing drownings: 7 tips to keep your children safe around water.” June 21, 2023. Retrieved from

United States Coast Guard. “2022 recreational boating statistics.” May 25, 2023. Retrieved from

United States Coast Guard. “A boater’s guide to the federal requirements for recreational boats.” November 8, 2023. Accessed from

U.S. Department of Agriculture: Forest Service. “Water safety.” Retrieved from Accessed February 22, 2024

YMCA. “When to start swimming lessons for your child.” June 20, 2023. Retrieved from

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