Proactive Approaches Prevent Problems
By Dana Carman
Where safety is concerned, industry professionals express similar sentiments: Vigilance is the foundation upon which any good risk management or safety plan is built.
Safety is a mindset, said recreation consultant Leonard Lucenko, Ph.D. "From the moment you drive into the parking lot to work until the moment you drive out at the end of your tour of duty, you are thinking about safety," he said, "and asking, 'What can be done safer here? What can we do better?'"
As with anything, there are risks that can't be foreseen, and let's be honest, sometimes really unbelievable stuff happens, but the most important thing facilities and programs can do is assess the inherent risks in the activities and opportunities offered and prepare as best as possible to address problems—before they happen.
Walking into a gym, it isn't terribly hard to see where injury can occur, but there's a difference between a member dropping a weight on his or her foot and someone flipping off a trampoline and landing where a mat should have been. The keys are common sense and a safety-first attitude.
When it comes to safety in fitness centers, Douglas Baumgarten, owner of SportFit Consulting, a fitness safety and risk consulting firm based in Stone Ridge, Va., said it basically comes down to two things: the facilities and the staff. "The facilities need to be safe to begin with—well designed, well maintained," he said. "The staff should be well hired and well trained. If you do those two well, you tend not to have problems."
With fitness a booming industry and gyms clamoring for new clientele, cardio and weight rooms are becoming more and more crowded—not just with patrons. Room space is a premium, so fill it wisely. Baumgarten suggests making sure you're purchasing the equipment that's right for your audience to eliminate unnecessary crowding. Too much stuff makes it easy for someone to trip, fall and whack their head on whatever else is right next to them. With headphones, cell phones and giant televisions blaring, it's painfully obvious that people aren't often paying attention, so stage pieces of equipment at respectable distances from one another, making sure pathways are clear. That goes for the trajectory of the exercise path also. Baugarten said that manufacturers may specify the clearance on a given piece of equipment. If someone is leaning far back on a rowing machine, for example, are they going to get their head knocked by the person pedaling on the bike behind them?
Similarly, protect for the activity, Lucenko said. For example, have the right flooring or mats in place. Keep the floors in good shape on courts.
"Each facility, each activity will dictate the safety measures you need to take," Lucenko said. "The maintenance and inspection is very, very important."
That means it's better to find out that something isn't working, something is wet or something is out of place through your own routine inspections than because a patron has been injured due to the club's negligence.
You're only as good, though, as your staff, which is why The Atlantic Club in Manasquan, N.J., puts its staff through rigorous training during new-hire orientation. The club comprises 44 acres with 6,200 full-paying members, which doesn't include their children. When you add those 1,000 kids and a staff that ranges from 450 in the off-season to 700 people during the summer, you have a lot of people and a lot of responsibility. Senior Director Ellen Veprek said that the training is imperative and puts every single staff member through it—right at the beginning. That training includes certification in CPR, first aid, blood-borne pathogens, AED and oxygen use.
In recent years, the automated external defibrillator or AED has become a hot topic as several states are requiring them in schools, health clubs and other public buildings. New Jersey is one such state, requiring health clubs to have at least one AED.
That's fine by Veprek who has first-hand experience of just how life-saving these devices can be. In one instance, a gentleman collapsed while playing tennis, having suffered a massive heart attack. An AED was used during the resuscitation, and today he's still playing tennis.
However, simply having the device on site is of little use. The Atlantic Club staff is well trained in AED use as well as emergency procedures, such as where the AEDs are located along with the other emergency equipment.
James Kozlowski, counsel to the public policy division of the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA), recalled a case in which a facility had an AED, but no one knew where it was and the person in need died.
Beyond having the tools, Veprek stressed that safety is a commitment that must be undertaken by all those involved in the club, from the owner down to the last staff member. At The Atlantic Club, the maintenance staff is also certified in the above measures and the staff runs through "virtual codes" or drills to reinforce education, such as fire drills, pool rescues or directing of emergency personnel. "It works like a ballet," Veprek said of the staff's response to an emergency. Each role is crucial in a situation where a few seconds makes all the difference.
Because the club is so large and comprises so many elements, there's a nurse and EMTs on the property. Veprek said the club also offers its first responders discount memberships so they familiarize themselves with the property, as well as having mangers conduct daily walk-through inspections of each area of the property to avoid things like slippery floors, loose pool ladders, cluttered walkways, broken lights and anything else that could cause a potential problem. "You have to put a lot of money toward safety," she said. "But what a beautiful outcome. When we operate anything, it's safety first, fun next."
More and more fitness and recreation centers, especially on university campuses, in YMCAs and in health clubs, are incorporating climbing walls into the mix of offerings. Roping someone in and sending them up to a height of 30 feet or more—we don't need to point out the risk. But if someone walks into a climbing facility or center housing a climbing wall, that person should have the risk pointed out to him or her—loud and clear.
"There are inherent risks," said Bill Zimmerman, executive director of the Climbing Wall Association (CWA) in Boulder, Colo. "If you fall, you can get hurt, and it's possible you could even be killed. That business owner/patron interaction has to be upfront. A participant should willingly acknowledge and assume risks of participation."
Some clubs have bouldering walls, in which the height to which one can climb is lower and no ropes are required. Many, though, feature larger walls in which climbers must learn to both climb roped in and belay, or control the rope for another climber.
The CWA stresses that staff should assess potential climbers before allowing them to take to the wall. "Are they qualified to climb in that facility and belay for one another?" Zimmerman asked. "Do they have lots of prior experience? Are they a novice? The answers are going to put that patron in a different track. You want to instruct them on the rules and on basic climbing and belaying practices. I used to say, 'Belay school is a pass-fail course. You can belay them adequately or you cannot.' The crux of it is, are the patrons trained and assessed to be competent in those skills?"
Assessing a climber-to-be requires that staff also be trained—i.e., they should have climbing experience and knowledge. Staff should not only be well trained, but well supervised, all of which falls under strong human resources management.
"I think HR management and the staff training are crucial as the industry grows," Zimmerman said. To that end, the CWA has created the Climbing Wall Instructor Certification Program (www.climbingwallindustry.org).
Zimmerman also suggested that those running climbing wall facilities soak up as much industry knowledge and experience as possible, through trainings with vendors, industry association documents, instructional seminars, etc. Another such resource is the comprehensive Industry Practices: A Sourcebook for the Operation of Manufactured Climbing Walls, published by the CWA.
A climbing wall has many facets—anchors, handholds, ropes—so facilities should make maintenance a priority. John McGowan, president of a Boulder-based climbing wall manufacturer, suggests routine maintenance inspections and adhering strictly to a schedule, such as checking ropes daily, inspecting the sheath for damage, checking the lead anchors regularly and so on.
Safety starts with a good design, and climbing walls are no different. If your facility is in the planning stages and there's talk of adding a climbing wall, consulting with climbing wall designers can ensure you create the safest possible space. Because it is, in essence, a wall, there may be the thought that it can be shoehorned into leftover unoccupied areas, but that is not the case.
"Consider that you have to have access to the back of it for maintenance," McGowan said. "You need space for the wall itself. You could have 10 feet of depth, 2 feet behind and 7 feet in front of fall space. On top of that you might have a major egress or passageway going in front. Obviously you don't want a path under falling climbers."
Speaking of falling, if a climber falls, where he lands has got to break that fall so the flooring should be a soft and resilient surface. Recycled rubber surfaces, padded mats and loose-fill materials are some of the surfaces you may see. The important thing, McGowan stressed, is that the floor will absorb the fall heights that can occur on the wall.
"Since there isn't a climbing wall standard, people are adapting the playground fall attenuation standard," McGowan said. "You can fall from substantially higher than playground equipment height, so the onus is on the end user to do the research." He noted that loose-fill material moves around a lot and requires significant maintenance to make sure it is always providing coverage. His company prefers a two-layer system.
Before a climber even gets on the wall, however, he or she should be seeing significant signage, said McGowan. Signs should specify rules, forewarn people to look up before entering the area, and most of all, remind potential users that ultimately safety is the responsibility of each individual climber. Facilitating that is the CWA's ClimbSmart! program, which is a national public awareness campaign addressing the elements of risk in climbing sports, climbers' safety and personal responsibility. As part of the program, the CWA organizes ClimbSmart! events at member facilities and provides materials free of charge.
As with climbing, it isn't hard to spot the risks associated with swimming. Similar to having proper flooring for the climbers because ultimately a climber will fall, exceptionally trained and attentive lifeguards are essential, because ultimately one of them will have to make a real save. Aquatics staff members reiterated that fact again and again, each one noting that their lifeguards ran through regular drills, were routinely surprise audited and were supervised closely.
"Lifeguard management doesn't stop," said Patrick Finnegan, vice president of Chula Vista Resort in the Wisconsin Dells. "You cannot stop training. There's no end to lifeguard training. It's constant and consistent and always requires management."
Chula Vista features over 200,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor waterpark space. In other words, it's massive. Proper staffing is imperative—meaning having just the right amount of lifeguards. "Too many lifeguards on the pool creates more of a hazard than not enough," Finnegan said. "There's really a lot to be considered when determining what the proper staffing level is for the pool." He noted the square footage, obstructions, how many people are in the pool, depth of the water and the experience and ability of the waterpark operator as some of those considerations. "We have a vested interest in making sure it's safe far beyond what any regulation could stipulate," he said.
In creating the safest environment possible, however, waterparks and pools can often fall prey to their own success. "Our biggest safety issue as far as I'm concerned," Finnegan said, "is related to swimming skills. Parents who know their children can't swim have a sense of security because a facility is guarded and are willing to let their kids roam freely. In some truly frustrating cases, they don't even come in with them."
Chris Watson, the recreation manager for the City of Hurst Parks and Recreation in Hurst, Texas, understands this. "I think the public's perception is that lifeguards are the final barrier to safety," he said. But really, "they're a supplement to personal responsibility."
To that end, Chula Vista has put in motion some re-education tools to remind parents that no one is better at supervising their child than they are. One such tool is guest check-in literature that lists the waterpark's promises and guest responsibilities. For example, the park promises to provide trained lifeguards, but it is the guests' responsibility to watch their kids. Or, the park promises to provide quality life jackets, but it is the guests' responsibility to make sure their kids are wearing one if they can't swim. In-room notices also reiterate rules.
Beyond required reading, a new wrist-banding program is being rolled out. In order to use the water facilities, guests will have to secure a wristband from the waterpark staff. The staff will reiterate safety, discuss the appropriate age a child is permitted to be at the facility without a parent present, and present wristbands that are color-coded for age. The wristbands can be scanned to find out guest name, room number and a contact number so that if an underage child is found in the park alone, the wristband information will locate a parent.
"Am I trying to put all the responsibility on a parent?" Finnegan asked. "No. We still have a responsibility to do our part." But, he noted, "The industry has had tragedies that are related directly to unattended children and to non-swimmers in deep water without a life jacket. We have a vested interest that everyone who comes to the waterpark goes home."
Part of the re-education of the public therefore also includes creating programs for swim lessons and informing the public of just how important it is that kids learn to swim. Some parents may take offense at the notion that they're not "properly parenting" and would prefer to place the blame elsewhere when it comes to water safety, but Finnegan noted that while a parent may know his or her child's ability, the staff doesn't. For the most part, Finnegan said, parents see his approach as a good thing rather than a negative.
The Prince William County (PWC) Park Authority does its share of water safety education as well, illustrating that perhaps the best tool of all is a public with a shared interest in safety rather than an assumption of such. Like Chula Vista, PWC Park Authority provides highly trained lifeguards with thorough, routine inspections and drills to keep them constantly on alert. However, also like Chula Vista, PWC Park Authority recognizes that in addition to providing the best possible environment, the pool users need to understand and undertake precautions as well. Life vests are available in every size for toddlers up to adults, free of charge. Instead of doing just a water safety month, it's a water safety summer at the PWC pools with water safety events and programs rotating days at each facility.
Additionally, Aquatics Director Crystal Wilson, along with another staff member, has begun water safety classes for third- through fifth-graders. "They take safety extremely seriously," said Diane Cabot, public relations manager.
Which is why PWC Park Authority also has a database that tracks all injury occurrences of staff or customers, as well as theft and vandalism. The data is analyzed on a quarterly basis to see if any changes are needed in the current risk management plan. While the Park Authority has two full-time risk management staff, everyone in the department is accountable for safety. "We do a lot of general risk training," Cabot said.
Managing risk boils down to a few essential key points:
- Rigorously train staff to understand safety and be accountable for it.
- Be vigilant in enforcing current safety policies and review them often for improvements.
- Educate the participating public on personal responsibility.
The best defense against risk is a strong offense. Acknowledge and accept those risks, and reap the rewards of recreation.
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