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Feature Article - August 2009

Safety & Protection for All: How the Right Risk Management

Strategy Makes Recreation More Enjoyable

By Jessica Royer Ocken


"Risk management" is one of those important-sounding terms that may or may not be adequately understood. However, particularly in the recreation business, it's a term that truly is important—not just to understand, but to implement and keep updated.

An effective risk management strategy is your best means of making sure your park or pool or soccer field is as safe as possible for those who come to play, and your best approach to keeping your organization covered if (perish the thought) an accident occurs and a potential lawsuit arises.

To help you take stock of your current risk management situation, as well as nail down that pesky definition for the term, Recreation Management has consulted an assortment of experts in the field to get their top tips and professional recommendations. And, in case the answers that follow spur you into action, we've also included insider suggestions on the best places to seek more information on this timely topic.

Q: What should an effective risk management policy do? How does risk management relate to safety?

"Everything having to do with risk management also has to do with safety, but risk management is a more global term," said attorney Don Ornelas, Jr. "I look at [risk management] as a proactive thing. The more you do at the front in terms of risk management and safety, the less likely you are to have incidents that lead to lawsuits. So, keep the stairs marked, clean things up when you need to, keep things maintained, avoid circumstances where people may get hurt…. If you follow risk management procedures, even if there is a lawsuit filed, it gives your attorney a lot to work with for the defense. It's all about reducing risk."

Kevin Hoffman, director of member services for Park District Risk Management Agency (PDRMA), agrees that there's a link between risk management and safety. "Safety gets interchanged with risk management, but risk management is a more strategic approach, looking at everything that could happen," he explained. "It is a process of identifying and assessing risks, managing the risks and making changes to ensure the ongoing objectives of the agency…. In parks and recreation, if people are getting hurt, they're not having fun."

However, all of the experts point out that risks and injuries cannot be eliminated entirely. "You want people to get hurt for the right reasons, not the wrong one," Hoffman added. "If they twist an ankle running around a base, OK, but if the base is not secured properly and they break an ankle…" That's more likely to be blamed on negligence by the maintenance staff than on an abundance of Gatorade-fueled competitive spirit.

Adding further illumination, Dr. John Otto Spengler, chair of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation's (AAPAR) Safety and Risk Management Council and associate professor at University of Florida, noted that "risk management is often used in economic terms to talk about financial loss, but what we deal with really centers on safety. There's an intersection between law and risk management: trying to keep facilities and programs safe so people don't get injured, and therefore also preventing or reducing the probability of lawsuits and financial loss and all the bad things that go along with that.

"There's also an insurance component," he added. "Cities and municipalities are insured and parks are covered, but oftentimes there's a limit on the amount for which they're covered. We understand that insurance exists, but don't use that as a reason not to be proactive and provide for safety."

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