Lifeguard on Duty: Swim at Your Own Risk!

Typically when we read headlines that relate to personal safety, we are smacked in the face with the obvious.  In a recent New York Times article, they raised the issue, albeit late in the season, of lifeguards’ texting on the job and putting swimmers at risk. The article identifies many instances this past summer where swimmers were rescued by other swimmers or in some cases drowned while the lifeguard was busy thumbing away on his/her phone.

Of course technology is one issue; we all know the age in which we live. The real concern is how to maintain a safe environment in the face of a world that produces increasing distractions and little reinforcement for doing the job you are being paid to do. Some jobs are just prone to low or no incidence of critical events. Some lifeguards work all summer and never see a person in danger of drowning. In other words, the primary reason for having the job doesn’t occur. By our very nature, our behavior, goes to the most reinforcing part of the environment. When a lifeguard goes for long periods with no reinforcement for scanning the ocean or the pool, their behavior will naturally turn to those things that offer more.

 A cellphone offers an infinite variety of reinforcement, particularly for the young tech savvy person. The rate of reinforcement from devices such as cellphones captures one's attention almost to the exclusion of job related activities. Attempts to deal with such dereliction of duty are predictable, costly and mostly ineffective.  Employees are disciplined, fired, warned, threatened with loss of job or just plain “chewed-out.” Supervisors resort to dumping the offender in the pool with his/her phone in hand; lock the phone in the office or texting them, “You’re fired.”  Many managers say they have tried everything and nothing works. However, they have not tried everything as I have not read of a single occasion where anyone has tried an approach to make the “lifeguarding activities” more positively reinforcing. 

Some people have mentioned low pay as contributing to the problem but I can assure you, this is not about money. It is about everyday reinforcement on the job. Pay more if you can but doubling pay will not eliminate this problem. Before mentioning a positive approach, let me say that I think the phones should be banned.  They are just too tempting to use. In addition, many pools or beaches issue a warning at first offense, even though the policy is firing for use of a cell phone on duty. That should be stopped.

If cellphones are prohibited and the employee knows it is a firing offense to violate the policy, then fired they should be – on first offense! On a positive side, what if we were to present situations requiring a lifeguard action in order to increase positive reinforcement for job related activities? What if we placed prohibited objects by the pool where lifeguards should spot them in a reasonable time and measure the accuracy and timeliness of their response? Why not have swimmers (not patrons but perhaps supervisors or other non-customers) do things that require some help from the guard and track these responses as well? In other words, introduce errors into the system for increasing reinforcement for desired behavior.

Track what is caught and record the response time. Chart the data so that guards can see progress. Provide positive reinforcement for correctly spotting and responding to incidents and events (input errors). Set efficiency goals for the team and provide celebrations and rewards for achievement. 

By the way, do not punish what is missed since they are not real situations. If correct responding is low, increase the number of opportunities for things to catch. My co-author and I spell out the science and technology behind this approach in our forthcoming book Safe by Accident. Because texting by lifeguards is just now being reported and because efforts to deal effectively with it have not been particularly successful, many managers have concluded that it is just something they will have to live with and that punishment is the only tool available. That is an unfortunate conclusion however, as the science of behavior offers effective, and positive, solutions.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.