Feature Article - January 2014
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Managing Risk

Protect Your Patrons, Protect Your Facility

By Deborah L. Vence

Plunging at breathless speed 50 feet down a massive waterslide or scaling up a 40-foot-high climbing wall for the first time probably would get anyone's heart racing.

Waterparks, climbing gyms and skateparks, in particular, offer these types of thrilling experiences and have become more popular than ever. Yet, with that excitement comes some risk—which is why it's imperative that such facilities have risk management practices in place to help keep patrons safe.

Risk management experts in the areas of indoor rock climbing, waterparks and skateparks discussed the standard practices that facilities should follow. And, recreation, sports and fitness facilities of all types can learn something from the practices employed by these higher-risk facilities.

Climbing Gyms

Since the very first indoor rock climbing gym opened in 1987 in Seattle, attracting only the most experienced mountaineers, the popularity of this recreational activity has grown tremendously. Now, the convenience in urban areas, in particular, has made it appealing and more accessible to much less experienced climbers, who want to become skilled at climbing indoors first, before venturing out in the real world.

To help keep climbers safe, climbing gyms must follow standard risk management practices issued by the Climbing Wall Association. (Injuries at climbing gyms might occur due to faulty ropes, harnesses, chains or another major part of the actual climbing wall; contact with the climbing wall; falls from the wall; or poor employee training, which is why it's necessary for climbing wall instructors to be certified.)

"The Climbing Wall Association publishes an industry practices document that serves as a sourcebook for the operation of manufactured climbing walls. It details the types of procedures and practices that facilities should have in place and provides some guiding examples. Other CWA risk management publications include climbing wall inspection standards, design and engineering standards for constructing climbing walls and business resources for facility owners," said Bill Zimmermann, CEO of the Climbing Wall Association.

To boot, the CWA maintains a certification program for climbing wall instructors.

"These certification standards are intended to promote industry self-regulation and assist owner/operators of climbing facilities in the management and operation of those facilities by establishing consistent, observable and minimum criteria for evaluating climbing wall instructors," he said. "CWA certification standards have been released after a public review process and pertain to technical skills and teaching of technical climbing skills only.

"In order to convey sound risk management practices to end users (climbers in our case), the CWA maintains the ClimbSmart! public awareness campaign. Campaign assets include posters and a newly released educational video, which provide information on the risks of climbing, climber responsibility and sound climbing practices," he said.

Moreover, the risk management resources distributed by the CWA cover facilities from construction to operation. Wall builders construct and inspect climbing walls with guidance from the CWA's specifications, while the owners implement sound risk management practices from the CWA's Industry Practices. Certified instructors also must adhere to consistent, minimum criteria laid out by the CWA certification program. (More information on certification standards can be found at www.climbingwallindustry.org.)

Zimmermann explained that when climbers first enter a facility, they often are shown the ClimbSmart! educational video as a supplement to a facility-specific orientation, which is given by a staff member.

"While climbing, the ClimbSmart! posters cover all areas of a climbing wall, including bouldering, belaying, auto belays and a general climbing warning," he said.

To boot, employees who operate climbing walls need to have a full understanding of their facility's policies and practices.

"These practices should be standardized within the facility and be well documented. Climbing is inherently dangerous and comes with risks—some of which cannot be completely mitigated," he said. "Staff should understand this concept and be aware of their responsibility as the facility and also the responsibility of the climbers in the facility."

Over the past year, the CWA released two new publications: the Guide to Climbing Gym Business Plan Creation, and the Guide to Visitor Agreements. In addition, the CWA maintains several standards committees that consistently examine and update publications to meet the climbing industry's changing needs.

And, even though these practices are specific to climbing gyms, regular recreation facilities can learn something from such practices as well.

"Risk management practices should always be standardized, documented and well communicated," Zimmermann added. "The climbing wall industry takes a unified stand on risk management by voluntarily adhering to the CWA's standards and certification program."