Cold water shock dangers need including in swimming and classroom lessons, say councils

“Knowing what to do if someone accidentally falls in cold water could mean the difference between life and death."


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Swimming and classroom lessons should teach children about the dangers of cold water shock, as new figures show a 25 per cent rise in the number of young people drowning accidentally, council leaders urged today.

With school holidays approaching and current warm weather, the Local Government Association (LGA) is warning how even strong and confident swimmers can struggle and drown after jumping into cold and unpredictable seas, rivers, canals and lakes where temperatures can be as low as 15C in the summer - half that of typical swimming pools heated to 30C.

The LGA is calling for swimming lessons to teach children about cold water shock - a leading cause of death in many drownings - which can increase a person’s breathing by tenfold, leading to a feeling of panic and possible cardiac arrest and loss of life.

If schools don’t arrange swimming lessons for their pupils, they should receive the safety advice as part of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) lessons, the LGA says.

It is also urging the Government to make “near-miss” statistics - sourced from fire and rescue service data – available for inclusion in the Water Incident Database to improve its effectiveness, as these figures are currently excluded from it. Councils believe this will help to identify the scale and nature of risk, which could be understated.

Latest figures from the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF) show that 300 people died in accidental drownings in the UK last year.

The number of people aged 19 and under who drowned in the UK has risen by 25 per cent, from 32 in 2015 to 40 in 2016, while drownings in canals and lakes rose by 24 per cent, from 45 to 56, over the same period.

Many people drown despite having no intention of entering the water. More than twice the number of people drowned while walking or running (77) than swimming (30) last year, while others drowned while cycling and climbing or rescuing animals on the spur of the moment, the NWSF figures show.

The data also shows that drownings are not just associated with coastal areas - only 13 English counties had fewer than three drownings in 2016.

Anyone who falls into water can increase their survival chances by fighting their instinct to swim and float instead for a minute or two, which will help them to regain control of their breathing while the effects of cold water shock pass, before trying to swim to safety or calling for help.

As well as cold water shock, the LGA says everyone needs to be more aware of other water risks, including tides and currents, and hidden dangers such as objects beneath the surface and unstable ground on beaches, cliffs, river banks and towpaths.

Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:

“Knowing what to do if someone accidentally falls in cold water could mean the difference between life and death.

“Children and adults need to understand that being able to swim 50 metres in a calm, warm swimming pool does not mean they will survive if they fall in a cold canal or a fast flowing river while out jogging or taking their dog for a walk.

“The effects of cold water shock should never be underestimated because they are a leading cause of drownings in the UK as they limit everyone’s ability to swim and rescue themselves.

“It’s vital that anyone falling into water fights the instinct to swim in a panic and instead remembers to float first for a minute or two. This will help them to regain control of their breathing before trying to swim to safety or calling for help as this will greatly improve their chances of survival.

“The need for education is clear if the death toll on our waterways and coastline is to be reduced, especially when many people drown after having had no intention of going into particularly deep water or after entering the water on the spur of the moment.

“We need to ensure that every child learns to swim and that while doing so they also learn about cold water shock which will help them to understand the risks to improve water safety across the country.

“The risks posed by potential water hazards vary from place to place as rivers, lakes and seas vary in terms of deceptive tides, water temperature and currents, while cliffs, beaches, river banks and towpaths vary in terms of stability, the depth of water they lie beside and the activities that take place on them.

“Councils are doing good work on water safety and we have supported the Respect the Water campaign and National Drowning Prevention Week this year. Teaching children about the dangers of cold water shock while they learn to swim or as part of PSHE lessons would support this work and would be a crucial lesson to help to save lives.”

Anyone who spots someone in danger in open water is advised not to enter the water to rescue them, but to call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.

Notes to editor

What is cold water shock?
Sudden immersion in cold water can cause blood vessels in the skin to close which makes it harder for blood to flood around the body. The heart then has to work harder and blood pressure increases. At the same time there is a "gasp" response which can result in water being breathed rather than air. The breathing rate also changes dramatically - it can increase by as much as tenfold. All these responses contribute to a feeling of panic. Cold water shock can lead to cardiac arrest and death.

UK Water-Related Fatalities reports for 2016 and 2015

Average British sea temperatures

Sudden immersion in water any temperature below 15C puts people at severe risk of cold water shock

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Respect the Water campaign advises anyone who falls into water to fight their instinct to swim and instead remember to float first, which could save them from drowning

The LGA is working with the National Water Safety Forum and its members, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Chief Fire Officers Association, Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and individual councils to promote the UK’s national drowning prevention strategy.

Examples of councils’ water safety work: 
Durham County Council: Jumping into cold water can kill you 
Cornwall Fire & Rescue Service: Water Safety