Frozen water guidance

People have drowned after falling through ice into very cold water, while many others have had to be rescued and revived. From previous incidents, it appears that the individuals most at risk are males particularly between 15 - 25 and young children. Children are attracted to frozen garden ponds, lakes and canals as they present play areas / natural ice skating opportunities.

However, over 50% of ice related drowning involved an attempted rescue of another person or a dog. In many instances, the dog managed to self-rescue while the owner/rescuer did not.

Note: This page is provided for guidance ONLY and is therefore not exhaustive. It is provided for landowners and those who manage watercourses so that they can provide appropriate information, instruction and train to their staff.


The principal piece of legislation concerning health and safety is the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The Act has far reaching implications for visitor risk management. The essence of the Act is that employers have a duty to identify and manage risks ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’. Although the main target of the Act is the safety of employees (Section 2), it also requires an employer/owner to conduct his/her undertakings in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of persons who are not his/her employees (Section 3). This includes members of the public.

Risk Assessment

As part of managing the health and safety of your business/organisation, you must control risks. To do this, you need to think about what might cause harm to people (including members of the public) and decide whether you are taking reasonable steps to prevent that harm.

A risk assessment is not about creating huge amounts of paperwork, but rather about identifying risks and implementing sensible measures to control those risks. You are probably already taking steps to protect your employees and members of the public, but your risk assessment will help you decide whether you have covered all you need to.

Think about how accidents and ill health could happen and concentrate on the real risks – those that are most likely and which will cause the most harm. If fewer than five employees are employed you do not have to document assessments, but it is very sensible to do so in order for you to evidence that you did everything reasonably practicable to prevent harm.

Advice for Landowners and Managers of Watercourses

Persons who own/manage bodies of water susceptible to freezing must put risk based procedures in place to avoid such tragedies occurring on their watercourses during the winter. It is important that those who own/manage watercourses put in place fully developed procedures for winter water safety and ensure that employees have a full understanding of the risk assessment(s) and the accompanying procedures. Landowners/management also need to know where the public are liable to access the ice. Risk assessments should give consideration to the following:

  • Publicity and education -  Raise awareness of the dangers of frozen watercourses. The use of websites, local media and social media to launch an education campaign on the dangers of frozen water. If resources allow, circulate leaflets or flyers to residents in areas close to water bodies (these may be included in local newspapers to save on distribution costs). Develop and conduct education initiatives in local schools and with community groups.
  • Information - Must be clear, with as few words as possible but featuring pictograms. It is vitally important that care is taken to study the local population in order to ascertain if information is needed in other languages as well as English. Some cultures view access into open water differently, which will require support from local community leaders. 
  • Ice signs - “Beware Thin Ice” signs should only be temporary, being erected when ice is present or liable to be present and removed when it thaws, otherwise they will become ineffective and may even be counter-productive. Reversible signs, that usually warn of swimming dangers but can be turned around to warn of ice in freezing conditions, are worthy of consideration.
  • Location of the signage - This should be determined as a result of the risk assessment and located at such places as the main access points, areas where people gather around water and where access to the ice is particularly easy or a commonplace. Places such as wildfowl feeding areas are particularly important in parks/canals/reservoirs for example.

    These signs must contain a postcode or grid reference to aid the emergency services.
  • Supervision - Increase levels of supervision during cold periods. This could be difficult during holiday periods where staffing levels are lower, but if the weather is dry and cold, people are more likely to visit such sites looking for opportunities for exercise during weekends, the Christmas holidays or the spring half term in February. If additional staff are deployed, ensure they are trained and equipped to carry out the tasks required of them.
  • Develop an emergency action plan - So that staff know what they should do when responding to an incident. When employing patrols, ensure that public rescue equipment is located, that it is maintained and checked regularly and that they are able to provide assistance in the case of an emergency e.g. access to first aid, attempt to dissuade the public from going onto the ice, have adequate personal protective equipment, throw lines, appropriate training and a means of communication to summon the emergency services.
  • Rescue and emergency services - Liaise with the emergency services to ensure that they are familiar with the watercourse(s) you own/manage and make arrangements for their access to the site 24/7. Ensure that patrols have a list of postcodes/grid references for all areas, in case signage has been removed. This will ensure that mobilised emergency services are not delayed on their journey. 

Hidden Dangers from Reservoirs

Reservoirs have manmade features and because of their purpose, they have a number of unique hidden dangers. These relate mainly to built structures such as dams, spillways (overflows) and slopping shelves that provide a drop into deep water. Another hidden danger is the strong undercurrents caused by water being continually drawn into large submerged pipes. Risk assessments must reference that reservoirs are generally wide expanses of water and when frozen, are particularly attractive to visitors wishing to venture onto the ice.

Dog Rescue – Advice for Owners

A significant number of people drown by attempting to rescue a dog. In many cases, the dog manages to self-rescue from the watercourse without help while the owner/rescuer does not. It is therefore sensible to have the dog walking by the owner’s side and not to throw sticks or balls for dogs near frozen water. If the dog does get into trouble, do not go onto the ice or into the water to rescue, move to an area where the dog will be able to climb out and call them towards you.

Keep dogs on their leads when near ice.

Ice Breaking

This activity is conducted to break the edge of the ice to try to deter people from walking on it. Before taking this course of action, consideration should be given to the following:

  • Develop a policy on whether to break ice around the edges of watercourse. This decision should be based upon a risk assessment, which will be site specific.
  • The assessment criteria should include the depth of water around the edges, the ease in which people can get out, the likelihood of it refreezing and the degree of risk to employees who carry out the activity.
  • The assessment should be undertaken in consultation with the rescue services.

Consideration should be given to the following factors

  • Site owners/managers need to be aware that in carrying out ice breaking, employees are likely to be put at increased risk of falling through the ice and/or slipping on the bank or shoreline into the water.
  • If snow falls after ice has been broken, children may try to cross the void unaware that the ice has been removed, thus falling into very cold water.
  • A determined “ice skater” will inevitably find a way across the broken perimeter and will then be at greater risk of falling through the ice due to the increased instability of the ice layer.
  • Weaker thin ice may make it more difficult for an effective rescue to be carried out.

Cold Water Shock

The effects of cold water shock are responsible for many of the drownings which occur in the UK every year, as the water temperature in the UK remains cold, even during the summer months. Cold water shock affects our ability to swim and self-rescue.

Being immersed in cold water below 16°C can be particularly hazardous, especially for those who are not wearing a wetsuit, and those who jump in or fully enter the water quickly (slip). Basically, a person can temporarily lose the ability to control breathing, suffer an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. These responses can be a forerunner to a sudden heart attack, loss of swimming capacity and drowning through inhalation of small amounts of water. Cold water shock can result in otherwise healthy individuals becoming incapacitated, making it extremely difficult for them to reach safety.

The presence of alcohol or drugs is a contributory factor in at least 1 in 5 of all adult drowning deaths. The effects on motor skills, perception and behaviours are well known.

Signs of cold water shock

  • Initial Immersion Responses – Cold shock response
    Immediately after immersion in cold water, rapid cooling of the skin causes a number of instinctive reactions including gasping, hyperventilation, increased blood pressure and panic.
  • Short Term Responses – Loss of performance
    Following the initial response, the hands, feet, arms and legs start to cool and blood flow continues but becomes restricted. This causes a decrease in muscle strength and endurance leading to muscle fatigue and reduced control over body movements. If the casualty is unable to get out of the water, this will ultimately result in drowning.
  • Long Term Responses – Hypothermia
    Over time, significant heat loss causes the core body temperature to drop leading to hypothermia which is fatal unless treated effectively.

Incident Response

Although people should be aware and acknowledge that the only way to stay safe near frozen water is to KEEP OFF IT every year individuals repeatedly dice with death and venture out onto frozen lakes, canals, other areas of inland water and garden ponds. The inevitable result is that some fall through or become stranded on ice islands and unable to return to safety.

Action should be taken in these circumstances to assist the casualty without putting the rescuer at risk:


  • Shout to the casualty to “keep still”, this assists in allowing the body to become acclimatised to the cold of the water, plus maintaining heat and energy and provide reassurance to the causality to keep calm.
  • Shout for assistance, ask someone to phone the emergency services - call 999 immediately and ask for the Fire Service. (They will organise other emergency responders).
  • If assistance is not available, phone the emergency services yourself.
  • Do not attempt to go out onto the ice yourself unless trained to do so and with the correct PPE.
  • Try to find something that will extend your reach, such as a rope, pole, branch or item of clothing. Throw this or reach out to the casualty with it. Then, making sure you are stable on the bank by lying down or getting someone to hold onto you (this will prevent you being pulled onto the ice), attempt to pull the casualty to the shore/bank. It may be advisable to ask the casualty to lie on their back whilst being towed in to prevent the ingestion of freezing water.
  • It is advisable for staff that are working at such sites to carry with them (or keep in their vehicle) a throw line for this purpose.
  • If you cannot find something with which to perform a reach rescue, try to find something that will float (large plastic drum/container, football, etc). This will help to keep the casualty afloat until assistance arrives.
  • If none of the above is available and the casualty is out of reach, wait for the emergency services while calming and reassuring the casualty. Under no circumstances should you venture onto the ice to rescue the casualty.
  • If the person disappear under the ice, and if the area where the person has disappeared is not obvious (i.e. whole in the ice) then the person(s) at the scene MUST make reference points for when the emergency services arrive. In cold water there is a chance of resuscitation of up to 90 minutes and therefore every minute counts. If possible request that the witness remains at the scene until the emergency services arrive. Obtain a full account of the facts, and contact details (record on a phone if necessary). Let the witness go if they insist on leaving the scene, but stress the importance of remaining.

After the casualty has been rescued from the ice (Facilities Available)

The following are suggestions for those who are fortunate to have facilities adjacent to a watercourse e.g. a building, heating, first aider equipment, etc.

  • Make sure the emergency services are on their way.
  • If the casualty is not breathing give 5 mouth to mouth rescue breaths, check for a response and begin CPR if there is no response. If/when there is a response’ place the casualty in the recovery position.
  • Prevent the casualty from getting colder by removing outer clothing ONLY and wrap the casualty in a blanket, including their head so that they can warm up gradually. If available, cover the blanket with a thermal blanket.
  • Provide shelter. 
    Advisory: If a colleague or a member of the public is present, ask them to wait whilst you undertake this task so that they can witness your actions and ask them to remain with you until the emergency services arrive.
  • Provide reassurance to the casualty.
  • If possible get the casualty inside a building so as to be in a warm environment.
  • Give the casualty a warm drink, a conscious casualty will have a swallowing reflex. Do not give an alcoholic drink.
  • All casualties should be taken to hospital even if they appear to be unaffected by their ordeal.

After the casualty has been rescued from the ice (No Facilities Available)

The following are suggestions for those who unfortunately have no facilities adjacent to a watercourse to aid the casualty. An example of this would be when discovering a person in a remote location.

  • Make sure the emergency services are on their way.
  • If the casualty is not breathing give 5 mouth to mouth rescue breaths, check for a response and begin CPR if there is no response. If/when there is a response’ place the casualty in the recovery position.
  • Provide shelter.
  • Prevent the casualty from getting colder by removing outer clothing ONLY. 
    Advisory: If a colleague or a member of the public is present, ask them to wait whilst you undertake this task so that they can witness your actions and ask them to remain with you until the emergency services arrive.
  • Provide reassurance to the casualty.
  • Prevent them from getting colder by covering them with warm clothing (a coat), including their head. Hold the casualty close to you in order to generate body heat.
  • Do not rub their skin or give an alcoholic drink.
  • All casualties should be taken to hospital even if they appear to be unaffected by their ordeal.

If you fall through the ice:


  • Keep calm and initially do not move so that your body can become acclimatised to the cold water and call for “help”.
  • If no help is available, spread your arms across the surface of the ice.
  • If the ice is strong enough, kick your legs and slide back onto the ice.
  • If the ice is very thin, break it in front of you and make your way to the shore/bank.
  • If you cannot climb out, wait for help keeping as still as possible. Press your arms by your side and keep your legs together. Keep your head clear of the water.
  • Once you are safe, go to hospital immediately for a check-up, even if you feel well but cold.