Feature Article - August 2009
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Safety & Protection for All: How the Right Risk Management

Strategy Makes Recreation More Enjoyable

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Q: What are the essential components of a risk management policy in a recreation setting?

"One way to look at [risk management] is plans and procedures, and they're specific to different types of programs or events or potential safety risks," Spengler said. For example, in an environment like Florida, a lightning safety plan is essential. Such a plan might include a person who watches the weather and someone who is responsible for suspending or calling off games and practices in case of lightning, then resuming them. It might include a lightning prediction or detection system and staff trained in CPR and first aid. "Most [lightning] victims die from heart failure," Spengler explained.

However, more generally speaking, effective risk management plans include the following components:

"One is identifying potential risks, specific hazards like exposed sprinkler heads on a field or unsafe terrain of some sort or maybe an open gate to a pool where kids might get in after hours. You should also think of general hazards like lightning," Spengler said.

"The second part is evaluating risks. In evaluating you have to think about two things: severity of risk and probability of risk, how likely it is to occur," he said. "Lightning, unless a storm is on the way, is not that likely, but it is very severe. The same with aquatics. There may be moderate likelihood but very severe risks, such as drowning or spinal cord injury." If both severity and frequency of a risk are high, you'll want to do something to reduce the risk. Less severe or less frequent risks should be prioritized and addressed as you are able.

If you determine the risk's severity and probability to be "in the range where you need to do something about it, then the next step is risk treatment," Spengler added. Find a way to address the situation and reduce the risk of danger. A playground may become dangerous when sand or mulch gets pushed away from under the equipment, so have regular maintenance scheduled. If lightning is common in your area, enact a plan to protect children during outdoor organized sports activities, he suggested.

Spengler also noted that "having plans and procedures in place isn't enough. These have to be communicated to the staff and regularly practiced." Staff members should know the plan, what their part will be and how to perform that task. "In an emergency, people may not know how to react unless they've practiced," he added, noting that in one tragic case, a boy who went under at a municipal pool was retrieved by the staff and given emergency first aid to try to clear the water from his lungs. However, the staff member who went to call for help didn't return for a very long time. "The staff didn't know to dial 9 to get an outside line," Spengler said. And unfortunately, because of this, help did not arrive in time. "It may seem simple, but in an emergency, details are important," he said.

In addition to creating and implementing this sort of strategy, Ornelas recommends that you hire someone to be in charge of it: a trained risk manager. This person can then keep track of risk management for your entire organization, including adopting necessary procedures, placing signage where needed, and making sure the staff is trained appropriately.

"You also have a point person that an attorney or insurance company can deal with, which is important not just for litigation or liability, but because insurance companies base premiums on loss history," Ornelas said. "If you have a risk manager, your loss history [your track record of previous accidents and incidents] is probably better than someone who doesn't."

Another benefit? "It just looks more professional," Ornelas said. That in itself may be a deterrent against lawsuits, he added. "It shows you have it together."

He also stresses that "having it together" is a key component of effective risk management. "Part of risk management is not only doing the things you need to do, but documenting so you can prove you did them if you get sued." A risk manager can coordinate and organize recordkeeping on how often facilities are cleaned and maintained, as well as paperwork like signed releases and waivers.