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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 5375


Senator CAROL BROWN (12:45 PM) —I rise today to bring to the attention of the chamber the very important issue of infant mortality rates as a result of drowning in home swimming pools and the need to improve pool fencing regulations as a key means of prevention. Along with my fellow Tasmanian Senate colleagues Senator Catryna Bilyk and Senator Helen Polley I have on a number of occasions met with representatives from Royal Life Saving Society Australia who believe that improvements to pool fencing regulations could significantly reduce the number of toddler drownings that occur in backyard pools each year. Specifically, Royal Life Saving advocates nationally consistent regulations for pool areas, a measure that I strongly support.

The argument for nationally consistent and stringent pool fencing regulations is compelling. Royal Life Saving has produced a position paper, Nationally consistent regulation of pool barriers, which sets out a number of regulations to reduce drowning in Australia by simplifying our current pool fencing regulations. Disturbingly, the paper notes that ‘drowning is a major cause of death in Australian toddlers’. In 2004-2005, 15 children under the age of five drowned in swimming pools around the country, accounting for over 50 per cent of all drowning deaths. As if this is not tragic enough, the position paper goes on to detail the fact that for every one of these drowning deaths there are three more children admitted to hospital as a result of an ‘immersion incident’, a near drowning, with a significant number of them suffering brain damage as a result.

Figures show that the highest number of hospitalisations as a result of near drowning occurs amongst one- to five-year-olds and the majority of these occur in swimming pools. As a parent of young children, I could not imagine anything more devastating. As a parent of young children, I am also well aware that, while we might try our very hardest to keep our children in sight and safe at all times, the unfortunate reality is that unforeseen events happen. Pool fences are not a substitute for constant adult supervision; they are simply designed to assist parents in keeping their little ones safe.

Statistics show that mandatory pool fencing has been effective in reducing the number of child drowning deaths, with a 58 per cent reduction in the past 10 years. Pool barriers are now mandatory in most areas in Australia and uniform standards apply to the construction of new barriers. Even so, the actual regulation of pool barriers varies greatly across and even within different states. Different states have different rules about how the standards are to be applied and different local areas have different inspection and enforcement processes. While state and territory governments have made it compulsory to fence most swimming pools, the regulatory environment needs to be tightened to further assist in preventing our young children from drowning.

Just this year media reports highlighted the case of a local council in Queensland that did not support mandatory ongoing inspections of swimming pool fences—inevitably because of the costs associated with them. The council instead advocated subsidising the cost of swimming lessons for children. Whilst a worthy idea, as figures show that the highest number of hospitalisations as a result of near drowning occurs amongst one- to three-year-olds, the simple fact is that, aside from parents adequately supervising their young children when using a home pool, the erection of a quality pool fence is the best and most reliable method of preventing infant drowning.

Indeed, Royal Life Saving argue that more infant drownings could be avoided if pool fencing standards were to be simplified and applied consistently across the country. To this end Royal Life Saving propose a number of key recommendations including: encouraging all state and territory regulators to simplify regulatory requirements by reducing the number of variations in application standards; establishing a nationally agreed qualification for pool barrier inspectors; encouraging state and territory regulators to require certification of all pool barriers; and encouraging state and territory regulators to include ‘upgrade’ provisions within the legislation so that all existing pool barriers in Australia meet one minimum standard by 2010. These recommendations address, I believe, the major factors currently prohibiting the effective operation of pool fencing regulations.

While current regulations no doubt promote safer home pool safety practices to a certain extent, they have and continue to be applied inconsistently across states. Indeed, I was shocked to learn that, while the standard of pool fencing has obviously improved over time as knowledge of the most safe and effective designs have become more apparent, legislation in many states, including my home state of Tasmania, does not require the upgrade of existing fences to these new standards and therefore the standards are not being applied retrospectively. This means that houses containing pools with fences erected prior to the establishment of the most recent standards continue to be bought and sold to families without the requirement that the old fencing be upgraded. This does nothing to promote greater home pool safety or reduce drowning rates in home pools. This lack of consistency means that in some states over half of the pool barriers may be noncompliant with the current standard, and that this problem is not being acted upon or rectified.

Last October the Australian Water Safety Council, of which the Royal Life Saving Society is a member, launched the new Australian Water Safety Strategy for 2008 to 2011. The overarching aim of the strategy is to achieve a 50 per cent reduction in all drowning deaths in Australia by 2020. The strategy highlights the importance of national consistency in pool fencing legislation and regulation as a key means of reducing the number of home pool drownings, particularly those involving children.

Each year the Royal Life Saving Society Australia compiles a report on all drowning deaths in Australia for the previous financial year, as this includes the summer peak period. The Minister for Sport, the Hon. Kate Ellis, released the National drowning report in November last year. That 2008 report once again emphasised that toddlers were at particularly high risk of drowning, with 27 children under the age of five drowning in the year to 30 June 2008. Once again, the majority of those children drowned in backyard pools. Over the last five years 79 children have drowned in home swimming pools. Speaking at the launch of the report, the minister rightly pointed out:

It’s important to remember that each statistic represents another Australian family and a real, tragic story.

Home swimming pool drowning deaths continue to be a major component of child swimming deaths, and most of these could have been prevented through a combination of appropriate pool fencing and supervision. Also speaking at the time of the report’s release, Royal Life Saving’s CEO, Mr Rob Bradley, said that, tragically, an increasing number of children were drowning after getting through existing pool gates and fencing that their parents believed were secure. Mr Bradley highlighted that while pool fencing legislation has now been in place for 10 to 15 years, a significant number of existing fences have badly deteriorated. Further, a local government survey showed that up to 85 per cent of current home pools do not comply with safety standards.

To tackle the high number of toddler drowning deaths occurring in backyard pools, Royal Life Saving last year launched a new campaign as part of their Keep Watch program aimed at making sure backyard pool fencing and the surrounding areas are safe for young children. The program urges people across Australia to make a weekend their ‘home pool safety weekend’ by using a free checklist to make sure the fence around their backyard pool is safe. The checklist is available from the Royal Life Saving Society website.

The broader Keep Watch initiative is an Australia-wide public education program of the Royal Life Saving Society aimed at preventing drowning deaths of children in all aquatic locations. There are four main actions in this program. The first is supervision of your child. This is being within arm’s reach of your child, using all your attention all of the time when your child is on, in or near water. The second is restricting the child’s access to water. This is through pool fencing, emptying the water out of buckets or baths and providing safe playing areas—and I might add that that includes water features in gardens. I had a very unfortunate episode when my daughter was three. She was out of my sight for no more than 30 seconds and she fell in, but luckily she was able to stand up. This was very distressing, so I stress again that it is extraordinarily important to make sure you act in relation to any water in and around your house and that you watch your children at all times. The third action in the Keep Watch program is water familiarisation. This is about the parent understanding the child’s limitations and knowing how to provide safety for their child in any aquatic environment. The fourth is learning resuscitation to ensure that, if something does go wrong, you have the skills and drills to be able to react effectively and successfully.

However, drowning in home swimming pools remains one of the most significant causes of mortality in young children, and I believe the most effective means of assisting to prevent this is by tightening pool safety regulations. A recent article, ‘Safety legislation, public health policy and drowning prevention’, published in the International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion by Royal Life Saving and the Royal Children’s Hospital in Queensland, demonstrated the positive impact that swimming pool legislation in Queensland has had on reducing the incidence of children drowning. The article reports on the comparison of drowning incidents in the decade before—1982 to 1991—with those in the decade after—1992 to 2001—the introduction of the legislation. Over this period there were 53 drowning deaths of zero to four-year-olds in home swimming pools. The age-specific drowning death rates fell after the introduction of safety legislation, as did the ratio of pool drowning deaths to all drowning deaths in this age group. This proves that the right regulation does work. But, as infant drowning death statistics demonstrate, more needs to be done—and this work needs to start now.

Currently there are myriad different systems for pool fencing operating in Australia, in each of the states and territories. There is an obvious need to reduce the confusion around home pool fencing legislation both within and across different jurisdictions. This issue touches all levels of government—local and state as well as federal—and therefore its resolution will require action and cooperation at each level. Specifically I would urge all state and territory governments to support the development of nationally consistent pool fencing regulations. I believe all aspects of pool fencing and safety need to be considered, including regulations and inspections. I will be writing to the relevant Tasmanian state minister to draw their attention to this important issue and encourage them to take up the cause, support nationally consistent, standard regulations and start the discussion with their counterparts now. There is too much at stake for the current inconsistencies to continue.

Each summer, millions of Australians enjoy partaking in water based activities, whether at the beach or at a home pool; indeed, it is a national pastime. The operation of fantastic learn-to-swim programs and the provision of swimming and water safety teachers through the AUSTSWIM program, which is operating in Tasmania as I speak, ensure that thousands of young Australians each week are learning how to swim and enjoy the water safely—and one of them is my daughter. AUSTSWIM is the Australian Council for the Teaching of Swimming and Water Safety. The AUSTSWIM council includes Swimming Australia, the Royal Life Saving Society, Surf Life Saving Australia, the YMCA and the Australian Leisure Facilities Association.

In Tasmania compulsory swimming instruction in state schools must be available as early as possible in a student’s school life, but not later than year 3. Each child in state schools in Tasmania must have an equal opportunity to participate. The program is directed towards years 3, 4 and 5 children, who will participate in 30 lessons that are usually organised over 10 consecutive days per year. One of the aims of the program is to develop an understanding of water safety, survival and swimming practices.

Despite all of this, a high number of toddlers drown each year in backyard pools around the country. As I have mentioned previously but I wish to reiterate, no fence can replace the need to supervise young children at all times in and around the pool. However, appropriate pool fencing is an essential part—a part—of pool safety, and I believe an effective means of assisting to prevent toddlers drowning is tightening pool regulations. I encourage all members of the chamber to support the push by the Royal Life Saving Society for nationally consistent pool fencing regulations in the hope of reducing the number of young lives lost in the future due to drowning.