Feature Article - August 2012
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Be Safe: Risk Management in Recreation

By Julie Knudson


Craft Good Waivers

Signage dovetails right into waivers, with the two working in concert to warn participants about potential risks, offer them advice on staying safe and remind them of their personal accountability. And the first thing to know about waivers is that they "are not the be all end all," Gfeller said.

Each state treats waivers differently, with some giving them a great deal of weight and others not so much. But even if your state isn't waiver-friendly, Gfeller said they're still a good idea. "Your waiver is sort of the first opportunity to educate a customer about the inherent risks of the activity, and the notion that they're going to have personal responsibility for engaging in that activity," he explained. A waiver might not get your facility dismissed from a lawsuit, but it can be used to show that the participant was informed of the risks.

The city of Henderson doesn't employ waivers for single-day use, but Donner said they're frequently required in other instances. "On our registration form for programs and activities, there's a liability waiver or disclaimer," she explained. "Other than that, it's mostly program-based, or if you're signing up for a membership."

Many centers choose to go this route, including waiver language as part of their membership sign-up process as a way to ensure that participants are aware of potential risks and have made some form of acknowledgement of those risks.

LaRue recommends that waiver forms be simple and precise. "A one-page waiver is as good as an eight-page waiver," he said. One reason to keep waivers short and sweet is that participants often won't make the effort to actually read a waiver that's overly long or contains a lot of complicated language. If it becomes just a sign-and-go, the person has missed any risk awareness the waiver was intended to give them, potentially setting the stage for problems. LaRue strives to ensure that people are "at least reasonably comfortable with the decision to participate," something a well-crafted waiver should help to do.

Waivers or "hold harmless" language may allow for a good defense, Geiling said, because "you did allow the person to look at what the activity was, decide they were going to engage in it, sign the waiver, and proceed to go forward." If an injury occurs, he believes a waiver could be a very important defense tool. Many of the waivers used by K & K Insurance have been court-tested, and they're often written and presented in a way that's tailored to the activity taking place. For instance, motorsports tracks have a paper waiver for participants to sign, but Geiling said they also have the waiver printed on large posters. These are displayed in areas that are plainly visible to everyone waiting in line. "The poster is right in front of them," Geiling said. Participants claiming they didn't see or read the waiver may not have the jury on their side once the poster is presented in court. "When you unfold that thing and it's as big as a bed sheet, it's kind of hard for the person who signed the waiver to deny they had the opportunity to view it," Geiling said.

Safety Takes a Village

The DuPont STOP (Safety Training Observation Program) method is used by Donner's department to increase awareness of potential safety hazards. "It's an observation-based program, and we trained 50 supervisors and another 100 of our staff on it," she explained. Once employees are trained, they can then keep a close eye on the facilities, patrons and even other employees, watching for any kind of unsafe activity or situation. In this way, the program facilitates proactive notification of risky areas as well as risky behaviors. "Employees fill out a STOP card once a month," Donner said, adding that to invite maximum participation, they hold a monthly prize drawing for everyone who filled out a card.

LaRue agrees that employees are the eyes and ears of a robust safety plan. "I'm a big believer that every employee is fully vested in risk management," he said. "It's valuing each person in the environment, including our employees, and ensuring that everybody is safe." And when it comes to identifying potential risk factors, LaRue said that everyone needs to be involved. He encourages center operators to bring their personnel into the loop, to determine where safety risks exist and to find the right solutions to address them. His directive to employees is straightforward and effective. "If you see something unsafe, point it out, or if you have a specific concern that makes you feel uncomfortable, make sure you tell your supervisor," he said.

"Safety is number one. I tell my staff this all the time," Donner said. She stresses to her employees the need to be on the lookout for their patrons as well as themselves. "Recreation is an enjoyable experience, and I don't want people hurt in the performance of fun or duty."