Skip to main content
Link to Search

Open water

To keep yourself safe, when you are in, on or beside water, always follow the Water Safety Code.

The facts for 2022

  • 276 accidental drowning fatalities in 2022 (of which 60% were inland and 40% were coastal).
  • Drowning continues to be a male-dominated issue, with a ratio of 4 males to 1 female losing their lives by drowning.
  • 26% (58) of the fatalities were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
  • As in previous years, the largest group of people losing their lives in 2022 were walking or running close to water (76 people)


Water safety code

During the school holidays, and in particular in hot weather, increasing numbers of children put themselves at risk of drowning. On average 40-50 children drown per year in the UK.

To keep yourself safe, when you are in, on or beside water, always follow the Water Safety Code.

Spot the dangers

Water may look safe, but it can be dangerous. Learn to spot and keep away from dangers. You may swim well in a warm indoor pool, but that does not mean that you will be able to swim in cold water.

The dangers of water include:

  • Very cold temperatures
  • Hidden Currents
  • Fast flowing water, beware of locks and weirs
  • Deep water, it can be difficult to estimate the depth
  • There may be hidden rubbish or debris under the surface that can trap, snag or cut
  • It can be difficult to get out, banks can be steep, slimy and crumble away
  • No lifeguards, most outdoors waterways do not have lifeguards
  • Water pollution may make you ill

FLOAT to live (cold water shock)

Even in warm weather, open water in the UK remains cold enough to cause Cold water shock. This will affect even a strong swimmer's ability to control their breathing and swim effectively.
To help minimise the effects of cold water shock:

  1. Fight your instinct to panic or swim hard.
  2. Lean back in the water to keep your airway clear.
  3. Open your body up, extending your arms and legs, pushing your stomach up.
  4. Actions- gently move your hands and feet to help you float.
  5. Time- in 60 – 90 seconds you’ll be able to control your breathing.

Take safety advice

Where possible you should swim at a swimming pool or beach where a lifeguard is present. When this is not possible look out for special flags, on beaches, and notices, on inland waterways, which will tell you what to do. You can find a guide to Water Safety Flags (used on beaches) and Water Safety Signs (other waterways) below.

  • Go Together
    • Never go swimming, fishing or boating alone.
    • Children should always go with an adult, not by themselves. An adult can point out dangers or help if somebody gets into trouble.
  • Learn How To Help
    • If you see someone in difficulty, tell somebody:
      A lifeguard if there is one nearby
      Call 999 immediately. If you are at the beach ask for the coastguard, otherwise ask for the Fire service.
    • Never jump into the water yourself – often the rescuer becomes the casualty.
    • If you are in a remote area, using an app such as What3words will give emergency services an exact location. 
    • Tell the casualty to remain calm and FLOAT on their back.
    • Without putting yourself in danger, lay down at the water's edge and reach with an object, such as a stick, coat or jumper. 
    • If there is a lockable throwline box, call 999 and the fire service will give the code to access the throwline. 

Some material has been kindly provided by RoSPA the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

Water safety flags

Look out for the following flags at the seaside. They will let you know when it is safe to enter the water and if a lifeguard will be around to help you.

Red and yellow flag

Red and yellow flags mean Lifeguards are on patrol. You should only swim or boogie board in the area between the flags.

Red flag

The red flag means it is dangerous to bathe or swim and you should not go into the water.

Black and white flag

The quartered black and white flag indicates the area zoned for surf craft and Malibu boards. It is not safe for swimmers and bathers.

Water safety signs

There are three main types of water safety sign; prohibitionhazard, and mandatory signs. There are also information and safety equipment signs.

Each has its own meaning but they all use the same system to convey their message. Examples of each type of sign appear below.

beware deep water


Signs that warn you of danger are always:

  • Trangle Shaped
  • A yellow background, with black symbols and border
  • Placed to help you spot a hazard that is not always obvious

They mean that you should be aware of something.

The example sign here tells you to beware of deep water.

no diving


Signs that mean you should not do something, are always:

  • A red ring shape, with a line running through
  • White background, red line and black symbols or shapes
  • They inform you of things you are not supposed to do

These signs tell you that it would be dangerous to do something, or go in that place.

The example sign here tells you not to dive.

lifejackets must be worn


Signs that mean you should do something, are always:

  • Blue and circle shaped
  • Have white symbols or shapes
  • They inform you of things you need to do

These signs tell you that you should do something to be safe.

The example sign here tells you that lifejackets must be worn.

swimming area


Information signs, always have:

  • A white background
  • Black symbols or text

These signs help you either find something, or get somewhere.

The example sign here tells you this is a swimming area.

lifejacket located here

Equipment location

Safe condition signs, always have:

  • A green background
  • White symbols or text

These signs tell you where important safety items are such as the first aid place, or the emergency telephone.

The example sign tells you that a lifejacket is located here.

You can download the full list of water safety signs which is provided by RoSPA (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents).

National Water Safety Signs (pdf 252.32 KB)

Reservoir safety advice

Reservoirs can be extremely dangerous. Here are some key points to remember to keep you safe.

  • Deep water and steep sides, reservoirs are very deep with sudden drops and steep sides, making it difficult to get out
  • Remote locations – it may be difficult for emergency services to help anyone in trouble
  • Strong currents caused by machinery under the water
  • Cold water shock can take your breath away and lead to panic and death – reservoirs are very cold

United Utilities provide some great advice, guidance and activities for parents and children about reservoir safety.

United Utilities Reservoir safety education pack (pdf 1,176.10 KB)