Water safety warning ahead of Australia Day

24 January 2019

Following a horror start to summer across the nation - with 77 drowning deaths recorded since the beginning of December - experts are urging the Western Australian community to not become complacent about water safety in the lead up to the Australia Day long weekend. Lauren Nimmo, Senior Manager Health Promotion and Research at Royal Life Saving WA says “so far this summer we have seen a 50% increase in drowning nation-wide. And while fatal drowning has long been the focus of drowning prevention, almost 100 people are either admitted to hospital or present at a hospital emergency department following a non-fatal drowning incident each year in WA. A significant proportion of these people will experience long term health outcomes as a result of brain or spinal injury which can be a life changing event for both the individual and their family.”

New data released by Royal Perth Hospital reveals that over the past ten years, 292 patients were admitted to hospital with spinal injuries as a result of a water-related activity. These incidents were most likely to occur in summer and peaked in December and January when people are more likely to be on holidays and have greater exposure to water-related activities due to the warm weather. Injuries were most likely to occur in males (83.2%) aged 16-30 years (38.0%). “Each year there are around 30 water related spinal injuries, with around 6 of these resulting in paralysis for the victim. Spinal Cord injuries resulting in paralysis are devastating to the individual, families and to the community. These injuries are not repairable. No one anticipates such a horrible outcome, but these do occur every year with lifelong consequence. Take care with diving, surfing and using high powered water vehicles,” said Dr Sudhakar Rao, Director of the State Adult Major Trauma Unit at Royal Perth Hospital.

The majority of spinal injuries were sustained at coastal locations and were due to collisions with sandbars, being dumped by a wave and high velocity activities such as boating, jet skiing and surfing. Carl Akira Fujinami knows all too well the impact of spinal injuries after a summer holiday in Perth resulted in him becoming a quadriplegic. Carl broke his C4 vertebrae after diving into an approaching wave at Cottesloe Beach in 2012, and hitting his head with force on the wet compacted sand. As a presenter for the Paraplegic Benefit Fund, Carl shares his story of survival to encourage young people to be safe around the water. Carl says that the message is simple “If you can’t see how deep the water is, don’t dive in. My injury has changed my life. I can't do a lot of the things that I used to enjoy."

Alcohol-related drowning and injury remains a real concern in WA, particularly amongst young males, with the Royal Perth Hospital data also revealing that 20.2% of patients had consumed alcohol or drugs prior to their injury. In addition, Royal Life Saving data shows that 35% of drowning deaths are contributed to by alcohol. Lauren Nimmo says “the high levels of intoxication, particularly amongst young males when in and around waterways is concerning. While there has been great success in reducing drink driving on our roads, rates of drinking whilst swimming or boating remain frighteningly high. On weekends and public holidays in particular, people often get together for a day of boating, fishing or celebration by the water. We’re urging everyone, to look out for their mates by avoiding alcohol when they’re around water and keeping them safe if they are drunk near the water.”

So far this summer we have seen a significant increase in drowning deaths across Australia, with almost half occurring at inland waterway locations such as rivers and lakes. Here in WA a majority of our drowning deaths this summer have occurred at inland waterways. With the Australia Day long weekend coming up, many people will be spending time around the water and visiting national parks throughout the state which are becoming increasingly popular. Parks and Wildlife Service Assistant Director of Visitor Services Rod Annear said it was important to recognize the risks of swimming unsupervised in national parks, particularly in remote areas which could be difficult to access for emergency services. “Our national parks are beautiful and growing in popularity, and while we encourage people to enjoy our natural environment, there can be hidden dangers when swimming and there might not be anyone to assist you if you get into trouble. Know your swimming ability, be aware of the hazards, and don’t enter the water if you can’t swim.”

This Australia Day, Royal Life Saving WA is asking all Western Australians to follow these simple summer water safety tips to enjoy their celebrations while keeping themselves, their friends and their families safe:

  • Actively supervise children in and around water
  • Wear a lifejacket 
  • Avoid alcohol around water
  • Never swim alone
  • Check for currents and depth of water before entering

 You can find out more about the impact of alcohol on water safety through our Don't Drink and Drown program.

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For more information on staying safe at inland waterways click the link below to learn about our Respect the River program.

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