Feature Article - August 2008
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Safety First

Proactive Approaches Prevent Problems

By Dana Carman


On the Wall

More and more fitness and recreation centers, especially on university campuses, in YMCAs and in health clubs, are incorporating climbing walls into the mix of offerings. Roping someone in and sending them up to a height of 30 feet or more—we don't need to point out the risk. But if someone walks into a climbing facility or center housing a climbing wall, that person should have the risk pointed out to him or her—loud and clear.

"There are inherent risks," said Bill Zimmerman, executive director of the Climbing Wall Association (CWA) in Boulder, Colo. "If you fall, you can get hurt, and it's possible you could even be killed. That business owner/patron interaction has to be upfront. A participant should willingly acknowledge and assume risks of participation."

Some clubs have bouldering walls, in which the height to which one can climb is lower and no ropes are required. Many, though, feature larger walls in which climbers must learn to both climb roped in and belay, or control the rope for another climber.

The CWA stresses that staff should assess potential climbers before allowing them to take to the wall. "Are they qualified to climb in that facility and belay for one another?" Zimmerman asked. "Do they have lots of prior experience? Are they a novice? The answers are going to put that patron in a different track. You want to instruct them on the rules and on basic climbing and belaying practices. I used to say, 'Belay school is a pass-fail course. You can belay them adequately or you cannot.' The crux of it is, are the patrons trained and assessed to be competent in those skills?"

Assessing a climber-to-be requires that staff also be trained—i.e., they should have climbing experience and knowledge. Staff should not only be well trained, but well supervised, all of which falls under strong human resources management.

"I think HR management and the staff training are crucial as the industry grows," Zimmerman said. To that end, the CWA has created the Climbing Wall Instructor Certification Program (www.climbingwallindustry.org).

Zimmerman also suggested that those running climbing wall facilities soak up as much industry knowledge and experience as possible, through trainings with vendors, industry association documents, instructional seminars, etc. Another such resource is the comprehensive Industry Practices: A Sourcebook for the Operation of Manufactured Climbing Walls, published by the CWA.

A climbing wall has many facets—anchors, handholds, ropes—so facilities should make maintenance a priority. John McGowan, president of a Boulder-based climbing wall manufacturer, suggests routine maintenance inspections and adhering strictly to a schedule, such as checking ropes daily, inspecting the sheath for damage, checking the lead anchors regularly and so on.

Safety starts with a good design, and climbing walls are no different. If your facility is in the planning stages and there's talk of adding a climbing wall, consulting with climbing wall designers can ensure you create the safest possible space. Because it is, in essence, a wall, there may be the thought that it can be shoehorned into leftover unoccupied areas, but that is not the case.

"Consider that you have to have access to the back of it for maintenance," McGowan said. "You need space for the wall itself. You could have 10 feet of depth, 2 feet behind and 7 feet in front of fall space. On top of that you might have a major egress or passageway going in front. Obviously you don't want a path under falling climbers."

Speaking of falling, if a climber falls, where he lands has got to break that fall so the flooring should be a soft and resilient surface. Recycled rubber surfaces, padded mats and loose-fill materials are some of the surfaces you may see. The important thing, McGowan stressed, is that the floor will absorb the fall heights that can occur on the wall.

"Since there isn't a climbing wall standard, people are adapting the playground fall attenuation standard," McGowan said. "You can fall from substantially higher than playground equipment height, so the onus is on the end user to do the research." He noted that loose-fill material moves around a lot and requires significant maintenance to make sure it is always providing coverage. His company prefers a two-layer system.

Before a climber even gets on the wall, however, he or she should be seeing significant signage, said McGowan. Signs should specify rules, forewarn people to look up before entering the area, and most of all, remind potential users that ultimately safety is the responsibility of each individual climber. Facilitating that is the CWA's ClimbSmart! program, which is a national public awareness campaign addressing the elements of risk in climbing sports, climbers' safety and personal responsibility. As part of the program, the CWA organizes ClimbSmart! events at member facilities and provides materials free of charge.