Feature Article - January 2014
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Managing Risk

Protect Your Patrons, Protect Your Facility

By Deborah L. Vence


Skateboarders looking to perfect their next big tricks need to be especially mindful of the inherent risks associated with skateboarding—with high-speed movement often being the cause of falls and other injuries.

No standard practices really have been established for public skateparks, which is why skateboarders essentially have to skate at their own risk.

"There are, I believe, two general schools of thought. One is that the skatepark is a 'use at your own risk/unsupervised' facility, like a playground or basketball court in a public park. The other is that the skatepark should be viewed analogous to a swimming pool, with controlled entry and supervision," said Paul Taylor, director of park design, city of Atlanta, Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs.

But, Taylor said he's unsure that one is necessarily better than the other.

"I think that they each just manage and place the risk differently," he said. "With the supervised facility, the assumption is that the agency is doing everything of a preventive nature to minimize incidents or injury. This will most likely revolve around ensuring that attendees are wearing adequate protective gear."

Meanwhile, some facilities will charge an admission fee or membership fee to offset the cost of staffing.

"While seemingly attractive, it does in itself set up a standard of care that must be consistent. Agencies that have taken the 'use at your own risk/unsupervised' approach typically take the position that standard of supervision is difficult to maintain and opens the door up to more risk, not less, if they have to defend themselves against litigation," Taylor said.

"In a supervised facility, you, the operator, have now inserted yourself in terms of the viability of the safety equipment worn and the behavior of the users, in addition to the design and condition of the facility," he said.

Other ways skateparks manage risk include having attendees or legal guardians, in the case of minors, sign waivers; as well as ongoing inspections, repairs and custodial maintenance.

"Skateparks with modular features made of wood, plastic and steel will have a higher frequency of items degrading than a concrete poured-in-place park. Regular inspections of joints, fasteners, surfaces, etc., will need to be done. The risk of an operator being found liable from not addressing broken items or hidden hazards is probably far higher than for design or individual behaviors," he said. "There must be a way of securing and removing from use any features that have a break or malfunction."

In addition, visible signs that indicate recommended practices, rules and regulations, and hours of operation, are important, too, such as at the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark in midtown Atlanta, which has a system of symbols that distinguish low-level-experience areas of the skatepark from high-level areas, similar to the diamond system on ski slopes.

Ways to mitigate risk even can be addressed through design. But, skateparks always should be laid out and detailed by experienced designers.

"The features, distances and layout are all carefully established based on the anticipated number of users, the skill level and the types of use. Parks that allow trick bikes or BMX bikes, for example, will or should be designed differently than those designed strictly for skateboards and in-line skaters. Bikes go faster," he said. "There's more mass involved and their metal parts can gouge out surfaces and corners."

Taylor also suggested that an ample area be accessible outside of the actual runs or features that skaters use to launch and land.

"There will always be spectators or boarders taking a rest. There need to be areas that make these folks feel as active observers while keeping them at a safer distance from the action. Skateboards shooting out from under skaters' feet may call for low fencing to keep them from hitting spectators or passersby," he added.

And, those who are staffing a supervised facility should know first aid, what to look for in terms of safety gear viability and fit, skater etiquette, proper execution of basic tricks and moves and how to exercise authority in a customer-friendly manner.

Furthermore, those looking after the facility, in either supervised or unsupervised parks, should know what is important in terms of skaters' safe use of the runs and features. What might seem like a minor ding in the surface to an untrained eye actually might be a major hazard to a skater.