Farm ponds, lagoons, water wells, and water troughs are often found on Pennsylvania farms and all have contributed to accidental drowning deaths. These water sources serve a variety of functions on the farm but can also be a source of danger and liability. Most victims range in age from toddlers to young adults and sometimes are not residents of the farm where the incident occurred.
There are hidden dangers associated with farm ponds, including contamination by agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, livestock waste and other pollutants each presenting special health problems. If the water is cloudy, has a foul odor, or is covered with algae, it should not be used for swimming, because of possible human infectious agents. Ponds used for swimming should be sampled every spring for water quality by a certified laboratory. Other dangers lurking beneath farm pond surfaces include jagged rocks, broken bottles, animal bones, and other miscellaneous items common to farm ponds. Ponds that are out of sight of the home or barn are difficult to supervise.
Typically, drowning victims in farm ponds are young children under the age of four. Children with little or no swimming abilities get too close to the water's edge, lose their balance in the soft earth and then drown in shallow water. Lack of close supervision, underestimating the curiosity of children, and adults overestimating their child's sense of judgment all contribute to young children drowning in farm ponds. Even though a child verbally acknowledges a warning or word of caution does not mean that they fully understand the hazard or risk of farm ponds. Children's short attention span, plus the attractiveness of pond water as a play area, renders most verbal instructions ineffective. Children must be supervised at all times when they are near a pond or lagoon. In addition to supervision, provide your children with proper swimming instruction to reduce panic and provide them with the ability to possibly swim to safety. Children can also wade into shallow water but can fall into deep holes.
Data show that incidents most often occur when people use farm ponds for recreational swimming. Sharp drop-offs on the pond floor and leg cramps can be problematic even for experienced older swimmers. Multiple deaths have occurred when one person attempts to rescue an individual who is in trouble.
Reducing Hazards and Liability
Farm ponds are a vital part of many farm operations in Pennsylvania but they can be hazardous and pose a liability risk. The following section explains ways to reduce these risks:
In general, it is recommended that all ponds and lagoons be fenced with an eight foot locked, chain link fence with posted signs (e.g., No Trespassing, No Swimming, etc.). Non-posted, non-fenced ponds increase the risk of a lawsuit if uninvited swimmers are injured or drown. Restrict entrance to your pond to keep out uninvited guests.
To make your farm pond safe for swimming, eliminate physical hazards in and around the pond. In order to improve accessibility into the pond, grade a section of the pond to make an easy sloped entrance. The pond floor can be home to objects that can cause an injury to a swimmer. Drag the shallow areas of the pond floor to remove potentially dangerous objects. Sharp drop-off and the deeper parts of the pond should be marked to reduce the risk of a person stepping into an unexpected deep area. Better yet, rope off unsafe areas. When possible, use markers and signs to identify the depth of the pond at different locations.
Every farm pond used for swimming should have a rescue post inserted firmly in the ground near the water's edge. Secure a length of nylon rope to the post long enough to reach across the pond. Attach one end of the rope to a buoy and the other end to a wood block. Then hang these on the rescue post. A gallon plastic milk jug containing a pint of water, or small amount of sand can also serve as a buoy. A thin, 12-14 foot pole should also be kept at the rescue post for assisting victims out of the pond. Emergency phone numbers attached to the rescue post can speed help along the way.
Image adapted from Bean, T., 'Farm Pond Safety', Fact Sheet AEX-390-08. The Ohio State University Extension, Columbus, OH.
As the property owner, you can establish rules and post them at your pond. One rule should be that individuals should never swim alone even if they are expert swimmers. Landowners can require any person who swims in their farm ponds be trained on water rescue procedures and CPR, similar to those taught by the American Red Cross and other swimming instruction programs.
Wells, Septic Tanks, and Other Hazards
Some drowning deaths on farms result from falling into a large-diameter well pit. Modern wells are drilled with a 6" or 8" casing pipe that extends above the ground and is capped. An underground "pitless adapter" connects the well to the house plumbing. Older wells may have been hand-dug or drilled in an old hand-dug well pit and may be covered by wooden planks, rocks, bricks, vegetation, or other materials. Wooden planks may rot over a period of time and caps may get removed for a variety of reasons. Sometimes older children or pranksters will open up wells not realizing the seriousness of these actions. Old wells should have solid covers which cannot be easily removed and they should be checked regularly. If possible, fence off a well to keep children away. Wells that are no longer in use should be decommissioned according to the Well Abandonment Guidelines, from the DEP Groundwater Monitoring Guidance Manual.
Unsealed or improperly sealed wells pose a threat to health and safety, and the quality of the groundwater. The proper abandonment (decommissioning) of a well is a critical final step in its service life. It is the responsibility of a well owner to properly seal an abandoned well according to the rules and regulations of the Department of Environmental Protection. Proper well abandonment:
- eliminates the physical hazard of the hole in the ground
- eliminates a pathway for surface water contamination of the groundwater
- prevents changes in the aquifer system.
Septic tanks may have large-diameter riser pipes to the surface that make inspection and pumping easier. Concrete or plastic lids on the risers should fit securely and children should not play over septic tanks. Even adults must exercise caution when opening septic tanks since they can contain toxic gases. Septic tanks that are no longer used should be decommissioned according to local regulations by a septic contractor who will pump remaining waste liquid and then remove the tank, crush it in place, or fill the tank and any holes in the ground with approved types of gravel, sand, concrete, or topsoil. The bottom of the tank should be punctured to prevent water accumulation in the tank. Contact your township or borough Sewage Enforcement Officer for details and Penn State Extension septic system information.
Annual farm fatality reports also show that drowning can occur in the least expected amount of water or liquid. Drowning deaths in water pails, watering troughs, silage seepage puddles and even a fence post hole filled with water have occurred. These drowning are typically toddlers who have wandered off from a parent who may have been temporarily distracted. The drowning can occur in just moments.
Winter Pond Safety Issues
Winter pond recreational activities such as sledding, ice skating, and fishing are enjoyed by many rural families in Pennsylvania. Remember that these fun winter activities are still pond-related activities and require additional precautions because ice is involved.
Always know the strength and thickness of the ice on the farm pond before doing any activity on the ice. Because ice is a complex formation no ice is completely safe. Newly frozen ice is typically stronger than old ice. Ice that has thawed and refrozen can be weak and potentially dangerous. Temperature, precipitation (e.g., snow, sleet, rain), age of ice, water depth, and water quality are all factors involved in the strength and thickness of ice. Just because ice may be several inches to a foot or more thick does not guarantee its strength.
Before attempting to cross a frozen pond, conduct an inspection to determine the ice's thickness by drilling a hole through and chipping at the ice every 10 feet out from the shore. Examine the ice for thickness and color. High density ice is present if the ice comes off in chunks when it is being chipped. Low density and deteriorating ice is present when the ice comes off in flakes or thin layers. Inspect the ice conditions every time you go onto the ice because condition, strength, and stability of ice can change quickly depending on the temperature, weather, and sunlight. Ice that has been exposed to air temperatures above freezing (32 F) for six hours over a 24-hour period can rapidly lose strength and stability. The following table outlines the type of ice and its potential stability.
Table One: Ice Stability (Table adapted from Graham, G. & Bean, T., 'Ice Safety', Factsheet AEX-392-03, The Ohio State University)
|Ice Type||Color||Formation Origin||Safety Rating|
|First or old ice||Oily to opaque||Water temperature reaches 32 degrees F and freezes crystals into clumps.||Very poor - Stay off of the ice|
|Gray or black ice||Light gray to dark black||Melting ice, occurs even if the air temperature is below 32 degrees F||Very poor - Stay off of the ice|
|Snow ice||White to opaque||Water-saturated snow freezes on top of ice forming another thin ice layer||Poor to fair - Ice is weak|
|Clear ice||Blue to clear||Freezing water formed over a long period of below freezing temperatures||Best - Stay off if ice is less than 4 inches thick|
Winter Pond Rescue
Winter drowning victims may fall through thin ice and may not be capable of pulling themselves to safety. If a person falls through the ice, the first step is to remain calm and not run over to the hole in the ice because you could quickly become a victim as well. Locate and recruit other people to form a chain and slowly crawl toward the hole and throw a flotation device to the victim. If a flotation device is not available, use anything that has length such as rope, ski pole, tree limbs, etc.
Once the person has been rescued, evaluate them for signs of cold-weather illnesses such as hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia occurs when there is a decrease in the person's normal body temperature (98.6 F). The body loses heat faster than it is able to produce heat. The effect of hypothermia is dependent upon the victim's length of time in the water, water temperature, and their clothing. Common symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, blue tinted skin, poor coordination, numbness, decrease in dexterity, and confusion. Contact emergency medical responders immediately. While waiting for responders, get the victim into a shelter where they are able to gradually warm-up. If a shelter is not available, protect the victim from wind with whatever you have available (e.g., sleeping bag, tree limbs, people, etc.). The victim can slowly drink warm non-alcoholic non-caffeinated beverages. If possible, remove the victim's wet clothes and wrap them in warm clothing, blankets, or sleeping bags.
When caring for a hypothermia victim, never apply heat directly to the person's skin or rub or massage their skin.
Frostbite can occur even if you are not submerged in water. In this condition a person's body tissue becomes frozen and restricts circulation to their affected areas. Typically affected areas are toes, feet, fingers, ears, cheeks, and nose. Superficial and deep frostbite are the most severe types of frostbite and require immediate medical attention. Signs of frostbite include waxy skin, numbness, skin may be hard to touch, and possibly blistered. Frostbite can be extremely serious and lead to infections, blood clots, gangrene and amputation. Follow the same treatment steps outlined for hypothermia. Additional treatment includes immersing frozen body parts in warm water (100 F) or warm compresses for 20 to 30 minutes, keep affected area elevated, and do not let affected area be re-exposed to cold conditions.
- Graham, G. & Bean, T. (2003) Ice Safety. The Ohio State University Extension. Retrieved from OhioLine.