Feature Article - January 2016
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Experience & Education

The Importance of Training in Improving Safety

By Joe Bush

Dan Jeanette, member services coordinator of the Climbing Wall Association, said his organization's Climbing Wall Instructor Certification program is 5 years old and has been used by more than 100 certification providers to educate over 1,100 climbing instructors. He says the goals of the program include:

  • To increase the level of professionalism in indoor climbing.
  • To improve the level of consistency and competency in indoor climbing technical instruction.
  • To define a consistent standard of care for climbing instructors in the following areas: client orientation and instruction; teaching general climbing skills including movement; teaching proper belaying techniques; teaching proper leading techniques; teaching proper equipment care and use; proper facility use, care and inspection; emergency procedures.
  • To evaluate the technical skills of climbing instructors.
  • To provide candidates with guidance for further professional development.
  • To provide a means of promoting consistency and quality assurance in climbing instruction for the benefit of the public.

The program is also offered by the Professional Climbing Instructors Association (PCIA).

"In general the philosophy of safety in the commercial climbing industry is an application of practical risk management within the facility," Jeanette said. "Climbing, even in an indoor setting, is an inherently dangerous activity. No amount of precaution or planning can totally eliminate the risks associated. We, as an industry, work very hard to emphasize and inform customers of this fact, and, in general, to eliminate the 'safe' wording from our messaging."

Bouldering—climbing without safety lines or harnesses but with extra floor padding—is covered by the certification program, Jeanette said. That's important because it is very different from climbing using ropes, whether with help or solo (auto-belay).

"Bouldering presents unique risks to the climber," Jeanette said. "Every fall in bouldering is a ground fall and presents a risk of injury to the climber and those in the bouldering area. Climbers have been injured stepping, jumping or falling off of boulder problems, sometimes badly. There are a special set of considerations that need to be taken into account when bouldering is an option within a facility."

He said one of the elements of the instructor program is an emphasis on delivering a proper bouldering orientation prior to allowing a client to climb in that area of the facility. The orientation may contain, but is not limited to: the purpose, positioning and limitations of pads; clearing the landing area of equipment and other hazards; the purpose of spotting and spotting demonstration; demonstrating how to attempt to fall without injury; maintaining an awareness of the surrounding activity; and personal responsibility for risk taking and safety.

Jeanette said that just as bouldering's falls provide much of that discipline's danger, auto-belay climbers are most prone to injury from falling after forgetting to clip the rope to their harnesses. He cites one company's solution to the oversight.

The top corner of the product's triangular blue flag with the message "Clip In" clips to the rope when it's not in use, so climbers have to unclip it from the flag to clip it to their harnesses. At the same time, the other two corners are bolted to the bottom of the wall. If the clip is not unclipped from the flag, the flag is in the way of the climbers' first foothold. When it is used properly, the flag falls forward to reveal a yellow side with the message that says "Climber Above."

"In general, the track record for maintaining appropriate risk management within our industry remains good," said Jeanette.

Though regular workout facilities and climbing gyms have many differences, they share many operating procedures, some involving safety of their members that are not related to body movement or assistance from instructors.

The one thing that makes all the difference is providing adequate, continuous and effective staff training.

For instance, floors must be kept dry to prevent slippage; signs must be posted with usage warnings; instructions must accompany equipment; equipment must be kept in good working order. The training of facility staff in maintaining a safe environment for themselves and users of the facility must not be overlooked, said Neal Pire, Medical Wellness Implementation Specialist at Holy Name Medical Center's HNH Fitness in Oradell, N.J.

"It all depends on the facility manager's attention to pertinent details," Pire said. "It is one thing to follow local code, ADA, OSHA and other industry standards and guidelines. It is another—and most important—to live the standards on a day-to-day basis, and this makes thorough staff recruitment, training and management a paramount requirement."

The ACSM publishes health/fitness facility standards and guidelines, now in its fourth edition. The ACSM gathered consensus of experts in academic, medical, and health and fitness fields to help operators and owners. It covers pre-activity screening, orientation, education and supervision; risk management and emergency procedures; professional staff and independent contractors; facility design and construction; facility equipment; operational practices; and signage.

"The one thing that makes all the difference is providing adequate, continuous and effective staff training," Pires said. "Ultimately, it is your frontline employees that need to ensure safety in the workout environment. That can be as simple as picking up a piece of paper or wiping up a puddle of water that might cause a member to slip and fall, or wiping down the naugahyde on a machine with an anti-bacterial agent so that a member with a scratch on their skin who makes contact with an otherwise dirty surface does not end up with an infection or making sure that equipment is working properly so that users do not experience accidents when using them."

Pires said the problems don't begin with neglect as much as priority placement. Facility operations have many moving parts.

"This is where many facilities drop the ball," he said. "Their training focuses a lot on sales leadership and business operations and is devoid of or simply weak in hospitality and risk management. Every company should have a mission statement or core values document that includes a focus on the safety and well-being of its members and customers. Then they should take it a step further by developing and nurturing a company culture that embodies these philosophies."

Thompson said an emphasis on one kind of safety can easily blend into another.

"Accidents are going to happen. The most you can do is decrease the likelihood," he said. "Overexertion is another problem we often encounter in gyms. If there's people walking around the floor and they know what they're doing and they see someone trying to bench press 250 pounds but they weigh 110, there's a teaching moment there. The problem is the person walking around the floor probably doesn't have the right education or certification or experience to make that correction."

And thus, the circle is complete.