Feature Article - August 2012
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Be Safe: Risk Management in Recreation

By Julie Knudson

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."