National Water Safety Forum



How do I comply with the British Standard for signs and when should I do it?

The standard BS ISO 20712-1: 2008 was published in September 2011. This was updated in 2019 to BS ISO 7010:2019 Graphical symbols — Safety colours and safety signs — Registered safety signs. Design principles for safety signs and safety markings.

The Forum recommends that any new signage should conform to this standard in the future and that a regular review of existing signage is carried out. Those sign that are in need of repair or have poor legibility/clarity of image should be replaced straight away and all others should be subject to programmed replacement. It is not unreasonable to expect that all signs should comply within a five-year period. (Although a future court ruling could modify this estimate). Any reputable sign manufacturer should be aware of the relevant safety standards for water signs and should be able to make up signs to the relevant specifications.

Notices and signs must comply with the The Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996 and conform to ISO 7010:2019 Graphical symbols: Safety colours and safety signs.

Avoid the temptation to 'customise' signs, as uniformity in the way safety information is conveyed helps avoid confusion. In addition, some well known water safety signs and symbols have gone through the BSi standardisation process and have formed the basis of BS ISO 20712-1:2008 Water safety signs and beach safety flags.  Sign manufacturers should be aware of these standards and be able to supply signs that conform to them.

National Water Safety Signs

Is it acceptable to fly a red flag during winter when the water conditions are generally more dangerous, even though the lifeguard service is not operating or there is not a lifeguard present?

No. The decision to fly a red flag at a beach is made by a lifeguard following a risk assessment, taking into account the conditions on each day. If beach operators do not want the beach used in winter then signage to that effect should be erected.

Is there a guide to safety signs at the coast?

Signage often presents the last opportunity to provide advice to beach visitors. It is most effective when combined with supporting education and awareness campaigns. In 2005 'A guide to beach safety flags, signs and symbols' was published by the RNLI. The project was overseen by the National Beach Safety Council and developed in conjunction with coastal local authorities and national organisations. Read more...

At what intervals should I place life rings/belts around a water hazard?

You should only decide to install public rescue equipment after you have conducted a risk assessment. Rescue equipment should play only a minor role in a water safety strategy, with greater emphasis on prevention. However,once you have decided to install lifebuoys they should be:

  • clearly positioned and in colours of red or yellow
  • at a maximum height of 1.7m above the ground
  • regularly inspected and replaced where necessary

Placing and spacing will depend on the identified risk, look for the places where people congregate or where people are likely to fall in. Generally spacing of equipment at 100 metres is acceptable under normal conditions, so that a potential rescuer is not more than 50 metres from the equipment.

What type of public rescue equipment (PRE) is most suitable at coastal locations?

Over recent years, beach owners and operators have been in doubt as to the most appropriate PRE to be used at coastal locations. This has led to unsuitable equipment being installed and in many cases, has been identified as a major factor contributing to deaths and injuries.

PRE in coastal areas must be appropriate for the features and conditions of the coastline and water. The equipment should be easy to use by members of the public with minimal hesitation and without putting the safety of the rescuer at risk. Read more...

How does Managing health and safety in swimming pools (HSG 179) apply to non-standard swimming facilities?

The guidance in HSG179 is aimed primarily at swimming pools. But it also covers paddling pools, segregated areas of rivers, lakes and the sea, and other non-standard facilities. The Health and Safety Executive has prepared some guidance to clarify their approach to applying HSG 179 (Fourth edition published in 2018).

Where can I find out more information about child admission polices?

The Institute of Sport and Recreation Management (ISRM) first published guidance on this subject in 2005. CIMPSA, the Chartered Institute for Sport and Physical Activity, published an update to this guidance in July 2014.

What is the difference between a lifejacket and a buoyancy aid?

Both are personal flotation devices. A lifejacket will include head support and will ensure that the wearer floats on their back with their head above the water. A buoyancy aid will help keep a person afloat, but this could be either face down or on their back. The choice on which device is most appropriate will depend on the activity being carried out. You are advised to contact your sport's governing body for specific advice. More detailed information on buoyancy aids and lifejackets has been developed by NWSF members.

When should I wear, a buoyancy aid or a lifejacket?

A buoyancy aid is designed to keep someone afloat. It allows the wearer full movement whilst a water-based sporting activity is carried out. However, if unconscious, the wearer's head could be face down in the water.

A lifejacket has a buoyancy distribution sufficient to turn the user to a position where their mouth is clear of the water, even when they are unconscious.

What should I wear?

  • A buoyancy aid whilst in a sailing dinghy, personal watercraft, windsurfer, canoe or water-skiing or if providing safety cover for such an activity.
  • A lifejacket in an open boat, such as small powerboat, or when going ashore in a yacht tender.
  • A lifejacket at all times on a yacht or motor cruiser if you are a non-swimmer and when there is any possibility of entering the water. It should also be worn when the skipper deems it necessary, or whenever you feel you need to wear one.

Where it was once rare to see people wearing lifejackets afloat, it is now an accepted norm. Always wear a life jacket when abandoning ship. Specialist lifejackets are available for infants and children. Read more...

What is the difference between Coasteering and Tombstoning?

The critical difference between coasteering and tombstoning is the informal nature of the latter. Coasteering is a popular emerging activity that involves traversing along the intertidal zone, using a combination of scrambling, walking, and swimming to complete the journey. It often involves a series of jumps into deep water.

It is important to recognise that tombstoning is an activity, which has been practised around the coast for generations.  Unfortunately inrecent years it has gained attention for the wrong reasons, with a number of people killed or seriously injured. The title was adopted because of the way a person falls and plunges into deep water, in a similar way a stone would. Tombstoning is typically undertaken by individuals with varying degrees of planning and formality attached. Quite often, the media will use the tag tombstoning to describe a wide range of activity where people jump into the water from height. Read more...

What precautions should I take when taking part in water sports?

Due to the diversity of water sports available and the wide range of environments in which they can be practised, the Forum advises you to seek advice from your sport's governing body, specific to the activity that you are carrying out, and the conditions and location in which you will be doing it. Read more...

What duties do I have to my employees and visitors?

The basis of British health and safety law is the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. The Act sets out the general duties, which employers have towards employees, members of the public, and those that employees have to themselves and to each other. These duties are qualified in the Act by the principle of 'so far as is reasonably practicable'. An employer does not have to take measures to avoid or reduce the risk if they are technically impossible or if the time, trouble, or cost of the measures would be grossly disproportionate to the risk. Employers therefore should look at what the risks are and take sensible measures to tackle them. Read more...

What were the changes to the Coroners rules in 2007, and how do they affect me?

Following consultation on changes to Coroners Rules in 2007-2008, Parliament enacted the changes in a Statutory Instrument (SI) in July 2008. These changes may have some impact on organisations responsible for water-based activities and this Briefing Note highlights the relevant changes. The new Rules extend the powers of Coroners in making reports, recommending actions that might prevent future deaths, and publicising the findings and responses to those reports.

Please note the above FAQ and advice is subject to review.

Where can I get details of drowning statistics?

The WAter Incident Database (WAID) is the central dataset and service used by the Forum members. WAID is a service developed by the Forum to bring together water-related incident data from a wide range of sources within the UK search and rescue region. The system collates both fatal and non-fatal incidents, holding data back to 2009. Find out more about WAID.

What is cold water shock (CWS)?

It's the body's short-term, involuntary response to being suddenly immersed in cold water. It is considered to be a principal underlying factor in drowning deaths. After sudden immersion, a number of things happen:

  • closure of the blood vessels in the skin result in increased resistance to blood flow. The heart then has to work harder and blood pressure increases.
  • at the same time, there is a 'gasp' response, along with a dramatic change in the breathing rate, meaning the ability to keep controlled steady breathing is lost for a while.

The effect of these can lead to a sense of panic, inhalation of water, leading in some circumstance to a cardiac arrest.