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: Are there common mistakes made or challenges encountered by park districts and recreation facilities when it comes to having adequate risk management?

"An obvious [mistake] is if they're not maintaining things properly," Ornelas said. "Say there's a broken swing at the playground. You need to take it out of service. If there's exposed metal on a jungle gym, close it until that's fixed."

Ornelas also mentioned again how important recordkeeping is to risk management. "[Once] you have it fixed, you need to establish documentation to show/prove you were doing it, and this needs to be followed and filed away in a professional manner," he said.

In addition, be mindful of the way you are following the procedures you've established. Ornelas recalled a visit to a motor speedway where he was presented with a waiver to sign before entering a restricted pit area. However, "they had folded it over because the clipboard wasn't big enough. I just saw the part where I needed to sign," he said. "I could fight that in court."

Instead, patrons should sign an attorney-approved waiver, after having a chance to read and understand it, and you might even give them a wristband or other identification that indicates they have signed.

Hoffman noted that park districts may make the mistake of failing to be adequately informed about their insurance options. Always choose "current form" coverage, rather than a claims-paid or claims-made policy, he said. "With current form, when you buy a policy for a year, if anything happens in that year you have coverage. Then, five years later—a kid can file a claim until the age of majority—that year is insured forever."

Spengler added that one of the challenges of risk management is that the issues facing any given park or aquatic center are likely specific to that location. Geography and weather conditions can be factors. Urban areas face different risks than rural ones. However, "there's a real thirst for more information about risk management and the types of things that can or should be done," he said. "You have good, conscientious people working in these programs, but it's a matter of getting this information on their radar."

Hoffman agrees that staying informed is a constant endeavor. "Things keep changing, and there are new laws and regulations," he said. "If you have a loss and the cause is noncompliance with the law, you really don't have a defense. Tort laws have a lot of defenses if you blow it or do something dumb, but if you break the law, courts are not very forgiving."

All types of organizations—from the National Athletic Trainers Association to the National Weather Service to the Consumer Product Safety Commission—are now coming out with recommendations relevant to recreation risk management, Spengler said. "Those sources are not [related to] parks and recreation per se, so they're not sources within our world, but they're sources we have to know about," he said.

Making risk management a priority and broadening your scope can be a big step toward staying informed and keeping your programs and facilities as safe as possible. "There's lots coming out and coming out quickly," Spengler added. "[Parks and recreation managers] need to know where they can find that information."

Taking these words to heart? See the Risk Management Resources sidebar for tips on how to get started in your quest for current risk management information and a strategy to make your facility as safe as possible—for you and your patrons.