Be Safe: Risk Management in Recreation

By Julie Knudson

Recreation center activities often come with a helping of inherent risk, but operators can minimize potential dangers through diligence and planning.

"Any time a customer comes in contact with a piece of equipment or a facility, there's a potential risk," said Bill Beckner, research manager at the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) in Ashburn, Va. People don't always know how to swim, lift weights safely or do yoga. Keeping employees and patrons out of harm's way can be a daunting task, but developing a comprehensive program doesn't have to be cumbersome. "The real reason you're doing this is to create as good an experience as possible for customers, but there is a correlation to protecting you against risk management issues," Beckner said.

People Matter

Because employees have a profound and direct impact on safety within a rec center, the first step to manage risk is hiring the right people. Organizations with areas or programming aimed at children need to be especially mindful. "Background checks are something you definitely want to be doing," said Charles F. Gfeller, partner at Seiger Gfeller Laurie LLP in West Hartford, Conn. A criminal check should be part of candidates' background investigations, and Gfeller encourages centers to conduct comprehensive interviews as a way to "make sure the people they're bringing in to work in an environment that's going to have a lot of kids are the right type of people."

One issue that recreation centers often bump into is that many of their potential employees are high-schoolers or others under the age of 18, and because juvenile records are under seal, background checks on minors won't uncover criminal results. "It's kind of tough to do a background check that's meaningful on the type of workers you're likely to have in that environment," Gfeller said. Additional efforts should be put into screening these individuals, such as talking with coaches or others who may be familiar with their character. Verify that the candidate's skills and experience are appropriate for the job they're applying for, and talk with references to be sure the individual will be a good fit.

Diligence during the hiring process is crucial, and because background checks may not reveal everything a center needs to know about a candidate, Lee D. Geiling, loss control manager at Fort Wayne, Ind.-based K&K Insurance, believes they should be considered one tool of many. In addition, he says procedures for screening staff should be clear, comprehensive and well documented. If an incident occurs, the discovery process will uncover any lapses, and typically those won't be in the center's favor. "The first question the other side will ask is, 'Did you do employee screening?'" Geiling said. "If you say no, you are sunk."

Many rec centers have an employee base that is somewhat transient, an environment that can make training a challenge. "You have somebody come work for a season or a summer, and then they're gone to college," Gfeller said. "You get a whole new crop in the fall, and a whole new crop in the spring."

Because of that dynamic, he believes it's important to entrust someone at the managerial level with the training process. "As the owner or operator of the facility, you are imparting upon those management-level people the concepts that you want to make sure are instilled in the employees who are getting trained," he explained. Even when portions of new hire training occur on the job, Gfeller said that senior-level employees need to monitor the process from the background to ensure consistency.

A well documented training system gives results that are dependable and steady. "There should be a manual in place so all the training given is consistent," Geiling said. Rather than being tempted to rush an employee through training when things are busy and staff is stretched thin, Geiling said the manual ensures nothing is missed. "They must follow the training outline," he explained. Roles and responsibilities should also be documented, so new employees know what's expected of them.

The training program at the City of Henderson in Nevada is extensive and well documented, and Mary Ellen Donner, CPRP, director of the city's parks and recreation department, said that maintaining thorough records of all employee training sessions is crucial. It's also a key component in her department's accreditation through the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies (CAPRA). "When you're an accredited agency, you have to prove you've done these things," Donner said. She employs a training manager who collects and monitors training schedules and attendance rosters, and who also maintains a database that tracks the certifications held by employees. "It has made us very cognizant of making sure not only are employees attending these trainings, but that we have verification they attended," Donner explained.

But training goes beyond classes and certifications. "We have monthly safety quizzes that are attached to employees' paychecks, so it gets their attention," Donner said, and employees are required to turn in their quizzes to prove they've read the material and answered the questions. In addition, safety issues are regularly discussed as part of normal business, and Donner confirmed that "whether it's a management meeting or a lifeguard meeting, we always have a safety topic on the agenda."

Pay Attention to Your Facility

When Geiling's team evaluates a facility, he said they look at two aspects: the physical facility itself and then the operations. "Both of those areas are critical to folks having good facilities for people to come to and enjoy their recreation and go home in one piece," he said.

Potential safety risks begin outside—in the parking lot, along the walkways and on the stairs. Once inside the building, floors need to be in good shape and activity areas should be well maintained. Exit signs need to be readable, emergency lighting should be in place, the sprinkler system must be serviced correctly and the fire alarm system needs to be in good working order. "We also want to look for the AEDs," Geiling said, "because I think those are very important to have in a public facility."

Beckner said that facility operators should be keenly aware of their center's maintenance needs, especially as funding for many rec centers goes under the knife. "It's one thing to cut the budget back on your picnic area, so the grass grows a little higher," he explained. "But when you're cutting back in the recreation center, and the chemical systems in your pool aren't being maintained properly, you can create some pretty nasty conditions."

Elected officials may need more information on the potential risks involved in chopping maintenance budgets, because an accident or incident that's found to be the result of the center's cutbacks could be devastating financially.

Centers should also be inspecting and performing preventative maintenance on equipment and amenities, and documenting all actions. Each facility will have its own inspection routine, depending on the activities it offers. "In a weight room, for example, typically you're inspecting your machines frequently, such as daily or weekly," said Ian McGregor Ph.D., president of McGregor & Associates in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Other areas may not need to be inspected every day."

Sanitation and disease control are also high priorities, especially with the rise of nasty bugs such as MRSA. The appropriate use of chemicals in pools and spas is important to avoid waterborne illness, and McGregor said that other areas should always have "cleaning solutions available, with users highly encouraged to use paper towels or commercial products to wipe down the machines."

Water activity areas often top the list of risks in recreation centers. "Aquatic facilities and pools are definitely areas that need to be evaluated and trained for, because I think it's probably the place we have the most exposure," Donner said. To ensure her team has mitigated the risks as much as possible, they're diligent in keeping lifeguard certifications up-to-date. Employees are also cross-trained between different areas, so even when staffing levels are low, workers in the gym, fitness center, or other stations are able to respond appropriately to an emergency.

Focus on Signage

Rec center staff is responsible for providing instruction and oversight in the safe use of facilities and equipment, but there's no getting around the role that signage plays in keeping patrons and employees aware of potential risks. Geiling looks for them in every facility he tours, and said that ensuring the signage is appropriate—to the activities taking place and to the areas signage is posted in—is crucial to success. "We look at things that caution people not to run in the showers, that tell them how to use things appropriately, and that tell them what the rules are," he said. Anything that may pose a danger should also be clearly identified. And while facility operators may feel that most people don't pay attention to warnings or instructions, signage is still an important defense tool during litigation.

"The reality is that people don't read signs," McGregor agreed. "They'll look at it initially, or if it's a new sign they'll read it, but then they won't read it again." Even if that's the case, he said that good signage is still important. Placards should provide patrons and employees alike with information on things such as directions to popular activities, how to properly and safely lift weights, the location of AEDs, and even emergency evacuation routes. "Those are all things that are absolutely necessary," McGregor said.

If your organization has multiple facilities, Donner suggests keeping signage consistent. "It's as important for it to be posted as it is to be clear and understood, and not different from one facility to the next," she said. But with consistency also comes usability, and Donner said that signage may vary from one area of use to another, so as to be readable and recognizable.

Her team also reviews signage regularly, to be sure it's meeting the needs of patrons. "We get a lot of international visitors," she explained, "and so we've looked at improving our signage for people who may not speak English." Future changes could include symbols to make meanings more universal and easier to understand quickly.

Depending on the circumstance, Richard J. LaRue, DPE, professor and NAS fellow in the department of business and communications at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, said that signage doesn't necessarily need to be elaborate or even permanent to do its job. "Signage should be about safety," he said. For example, a cone with a simple paper sign could effectively warn patrons of doors that open into hallways during special events.

Failure to enforce the rules and regulations posted on signage might negate even having it in place, LaRue said. "I have heard lawyers say that you're better off not putting up a sign than putting up a sign and not enforcing it."

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."

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