Water Safety Management Issues for the Conservation Sector

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(First Aid for water safety)

By Cory Jones

Safety for staff working in or near is a major issue for everyone in our sector and robust risk assessments are one of the key ways to reduce the chance of accidents and incident occurring. Mitigation around working with water includes working in teams, good planning, communications on site, time of year, checking weather forecasts, and a final layer of safety should be correct PPE footwear (boots/waders), lifejackets, vinyl gloves, a spare flask with a hot drink and spare clothes etc.

Person warming up in the cold (Cory Jones)
(Cory Jones)

However, even with all these controls and mitigations in place accidents can still happen, slips and trips are so hard to prevent. This article will discuss first aid issues with respect to what to do if you or a colleague falls in the water.

Potential Issues -

Cold water shock & Immersion hypothermia - Sudden immersion in water less than 15ºC, can be very dangerous, even deadly. Immersion deaths represent the third most common cause of accidental death in adults (Cold Water Immersion, sudden death and prolonged survival. Prof M. Tipton, The Lancet). The sudden change of temperature from immersion in cold water has a varied effect on the body. The first thing that happens is the Cold Shock response. This causes a sudden gasp for air, followed by uncontrollable hyperventilation. This can cause immediate problems due to inhalation of water into the lungs.

Person standing in a river (Cory Jones)
(Cory Jones)

If the inhalation of water is avoided, the dangers aren’t over yet. The sudden cooling of the skin also causes blood vessels to shrink, which in turn makes it harder for blood to flow. At the same time the heart rate increases, which combined with the reduced blood vessel size, leads to an increase in blood pressure. The rapid rise in work rate, increase in blood pressure can thus lead to serious cardiovascular problems and sudden cardiac arrest in some cases.

What to do if you are immersed in cold water? The advice from the RNLI, is to try your best to relax. The initial cold shock response will pass in less than a minute, so trying to stay calm and control your breathing is the best course of action. Concentrate on trying to float on your back to keep your face clear of the water and stop you from panicking.

If the casualty is removed from the water quickly, they will probably be shivering violently with immersion hypothermia and be struggling to use their fingers or hands. Their core temperature however will not have dropped dangerously unless they have been in the water for a longer period of time. Help them get to shelter, ideally out of the wind. Remove wet clothing and give them warm dry clothes to wear. Give them warm fluids to drink and food to eat. Their body will generate heat if it has fuel to burn.

Rats are just one carrier of Weil's disease (Cory Jones)
Rats are just one carrier of Weil's disease (Cory Jones)

Weil's Disease and Leptospirosis - Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection contracted from leptospires that exist in the urine of mammals such as rats, cattle, sheep and dogs. Rats are considered the main agent of infection as they urinate as they run, marking their territories as they go.

Although relatively uncommon, Leptospirosis is a condition that those active in the countryside should be aware of. In 2017, there were 5 reported infections of Leptospirosis in Scotland, compared to 157 for Lyme disease. The more severe form of the infection, known as Weil’s Disease, can have a serious impact on your health and in some cases can result in death.

The leptospires enter your body mainly through any open cuts or wounds or by swallowing infected water. The condition is mainly recorded in the summer months when we are all out and about more.

Symptoms are wide ranging and often indicate the extent of the infection. It is estimated that around 90% of people who get infected will get Leptospirosis and 10% will get Weil’s Disease.

Symptoms of Leptospirosis may only appear up to a month after the initial infection and may include:

  • a very high temperature, or feel hot and shivery
  • a headache
  • feeling and being sick
  • aching muscles and joints
  • red eyes
  • loss of appetite

Awareness of the potential for infection plus the appearance of these symptoms should alert you to go to your GP. Explain your concerns and knowledge of Leptospirosis as well as your symptoms. If you are if unsure it is worth getting in touch with your local GP or called NHS 111 for more advice.

Symptoms of Weil’s Disease will (usually but not always) appear within 3 days and include:

  • yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • swollen ankles, feet or hands
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing up blood
Rescue breaths are key for non-breathing drowning casualties (Cory Jones)
Rescue breaths are key for non-breathing drowning casualties (Cory Jones)

Seek urgent medical attention if you have these symptoms.

CPR for drowning casualties - Worst case scenario you may end up finding a casualty on site or this maybe someone who has fallen in the water unexpectedly. If it is safe to do so, get the casualty out of the water, and as soon as we realize the casualty is not breathing, we’re going to give the casualty five rescue breaths.

Make sure the emergency services are on the way, tell them we suspect drowning and that we need an Automated External Defibrillator (AED). While waiting for help to arrive we’re going to continue our CPR protocol of 30 compressions, then 2 breaths continuously.

To help you we have included a video of how to carry out CPR on a suspected drowning casualty 

Note about Covid - currently under Covid protocols/restrictions it is not recommended to carry out the giving breath part of the CPR cycle.

To find out more about these and many other outdoor first aid issues download our digital outdoor first aid manual for free.

Cory Jones has been teaching outdoor first aid courses for nearly 20 years after a career as an ecologist and conservation officer. He is a Director of First Aid Training Co-operative and a graduate of the internationally renowned WEMSI School of Wilderness Medicine.

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Posted On: 16/04/2021

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