Feature Article - August 2012
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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."