Ontario proposes lowering minimum age for lifeguards to 15 to ease staff shortages

Ontario is proposing to lower the minimum age for lifeguards to 15, in part to address staff shortages in many cities last summer.

Regulations under the province’s Health Protection and Promotion Act currently state that all lifeguards, assistant lifeguards, aquatic instructors and instructors must be at least 16 years old. But the lifesaving association dropped the age requirement for national lifeguard certification to 15 a few years ago, and the government is looking to better align its rules with training courses.

The move also aims to address staff shortages and allow more youth employment, the government said in a public consultation announcement published by its Regulatory Register.

“The proposed changes also support increased use of lifeguard-supervised public pools and swimming lessons across the province,” the post said.

If a 15-year-old meets all the requirements for the association’s national lifeguard certification, they can start working, said Stephanie Bakalar, corporate communications manager for the Ontario Lifesaving Association.

“We know our program allows for the maturity and judgment that is required to be a lifeguard,” she said in an interview.

“So our lifeguards and instructors have to demonstrate physical, cognitive and emotional maturity, and we’ve designed our programs to address that.”

Not everyone, regardless of age, is required to start lifeguarding immediately, but Bacalar said the number of certifications is increasing and allowing 15-year-olds to work as lifeguards would be a “good step” to address the shortage.

Last summer, lifeguards, like many other departments, saw a pandemic-induced staffing crunch. Closures related to COVID-19 meant lifesaving associations were unable to conduct their certification courses, so the flow of new lifeguards dried up, with some lifeguards turning to other opportunities during the pandemic.

In Toronto when the outdoor swimming season started last summer, the city had only two-thirds of the lifeguards it needed. It also had to cancel 169 swimming lessons because it couldn’t find enough instructors. Other municipalities and provinces also reported shortages.

The city said that while specific numbers for this year have not been released, it has seen “a positive response to its diligent and continued hiring efforts over the past several months.”

Municipalities and other swimming programs are getting “creative” in their recruiting efforts, Bakalar said, targeting retired swimmers and stay-at-home parents, for example, who can fill trickier daytime slots.

The number of lifeguard certifications is still down about 20% from 2019, Bakalar said, but has been rebounding rapidly since its lowest levels in 2020.

Being able to keep pools open and offer swimming lessons is critical to water safety, Bakalar said.

“Learning to swim is an essential skill for preventing drowning, and Life Saving’s mission is to prevent drowning in Canada,” she said.

“So we want all of you to take traditional swimming lessons, or at least a survival swim lesson called Swim to Survive. These things will keep your family safe and yourself safe.”

Ontario’s minimum age proposal is open for public comment until April 28.

Alison Jones, Canadian Press

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