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Men aren't manly when they keep drowning

A citizen’s view

Every year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers publishes updated statistics for water safety (or lack thereof) at its project locations throughout the country. In the eight years I’ve been working for USACE, the statistics on drownings have not significantly changed (that I can recall), regardless of the amount of focus and messaging the enterprise has published. Again, it’s no surprise that USACE data from 2023 shows that drowning victims at our locations are 88 percent male and 89 percent who weren’t wearing life jackets.

This is an important topic for many of our staff in the natural resources management field but our primary message about wearing life jackets in and around water doesn’t appear to resonate with men. Why? Probably because us men (yes, us – I’m one) are good swimmers, strong, capable, manly and … men (I get the irony of me man-splaining this*). The attitude most adult (18-60-year-old) men have is why I’ve typically been ambivalent about trying to help the natural resource management field communicate about this topic.

For the past three years, I (since I’m manly and can accomplish anything*) have approached this challenge a bit differently (as I hope you can tell by the tone of this commentary). I’ve increased the focus of speaking directly to the demographic that needs to hear these things the most. In 2021, I wrote, “last year, 27 Oregonians died in recreational boating-related incidents – the most in three decades.” In 2022, I was more direct, saying “men, especially between 17-65 years of age, are the worst about wearing life jackets due to several things, including their arrogance about swimming abilities.” Last year, I ended up saying, “men are especially arrogant about their swimming abilities and strength.”

Not that it’s helped. Men in this age group continue to drown.

If you do some research (which I did), you will see that men are pretty good at killing ourselves accidentally. According to National Safety Council statistics (2021), men make up the majority of most deaths that we could likely avoid if we weren’t so cool, macho, strong, etc. For instance:

struck by or against (84% male)

drowning (75% male)

motor vehicle (72% male)

poisoning (71% male)

Before you get defensive and point out that you can still drown while wearing a life jacket, this too, I understand and have personal experience. My dad was an extremely experienced whitewater kayaker, who took safety seriously, wore his life jacket and still drowned. He got caught in a snag that the group he was with couldn’t see. It still and always will happen but that doesn’t mean we can’t reduce that number and avoid the trauma of those deaths on the victims’ families.

My point is, everyone should wear their life jacket – but especially men; however, I bet you (yes, YOU, macho man) won’t. Finally, this doesn’t absolve me from my past decisions that were stupid or dangerous, nor does it mean I won’t make some dumb or dangerous decisions in the future. For, I am only a man.

* The asterisks and italics indicate sarcasm.

Tom Conning is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and these views are his own. He believes sarcasm and dark humor will resonate more with the intended audience.


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