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

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."


Waterparks have continued to grow in popularity since they were first introduced in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the United States having the largest waterpark market. Features are more sophisticated, too, with special play areas equipped with waterslides, splashpads, spraygrounds and lazy rivers, and even some with artificial surfing or a body-surfing environment, such as a wave pool.

"Waterparks are leading the way in bringing a new generation to the joys of fun water activity. Waterparks are large facilities that involve a substantial investment. As a result, they tend to be more focused on risk management everywhere from design through operations," said Tom Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). "The facilities I visited are well-engineered and employ very competent and educated staff." (The NSPF offers an online course in its aquatic management series, dubbed "Aquatic Risk Management." The online course is geared toward aquatic facility managers, risk management and operators to help them learn how to protect customers and staff and reduce risk and liability.)

Standard risk management practices at waterparks are significantly variable in practice and might vary particularly between private-sector parks and public-sector parks, noted John L. Hunsucker, Ph.D., PE, president and CEO of the National Aquatic Safety Company (NASCO).

Reasons for the variance, he said, are related to the difference in the mission of the two different types of facilities, adding that public-sector parks are more concerned with reputation and service, and profit is not a significant motive for many of them.

"As an example, many states have a cap on what a public-sector park can be sued for, while no such cap exists in the private sector. The private-sector park is first and foremost a business and, as such, is concerned with profit, or else they can't stay in business," he said.

Hunsucker said he believes the following components are essential in managing risk at waterparks: a certification course in lifeguarding; a concentration on the deck management of lifeguards at the facility; and an inspection by an outside third party which comments not just on the skills of the lifeguards, but rather on how the guards are managed.

"The better agencies have requirements that they impose on their facilities. Some of these include standard practices that must be followed, attendance at the facilities national aquatic school, a prescribed number of inspections by the certifying agency during the season of operation," he said, adding that waterpark facilities should keep abreast of changes, research and modifications in standard practices. This usually means involvement with national trade associations, such as the World Waterpark Association.

Also, "Lifeguarding is a dynamic environment," he added. "As we get smarter and develop better procedures, we change protocols almost annually. As an example, while most parks will not experience a drowning, a significant number will have an orthopedic injury in the park each season if they have slides.

"This means that the certifying agency has to be robust enough to change protocols almost annually to incorporate new and better protocols. While these changes may not be necessarily large changes, the compendium of the changes over several years can be quite large. This necessitates not allowing your facility to exist in an isolated environment," he explained.

Shawn DeRosa, director of aquatics, Penn State University, and owner of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting, agreed.

"Properly trained and certified lifeguards are a major part of any waterpark's risk management plan," he said. And, staff often are screened for swimming ability and then trained in lifeguarding, CPR/AED and first aid procedures.

"Attraction operators must also be trained in the specific dispatch procedures for each attraction. Beyond initial certification, lifeguards participate in regular in-service training programs to keep rescue skills fresh and to ensure that lifeguards can effectively provide care as a team," he said.

"Many waterparks also participate in an external audit process in which a consultant makes an unannounced review or audit of lifeguard performance," he added. "These audits provide critical information to park managers regarding the performance of staff, including substantiating positive performance and identifying areas where additional training may be needed."

DeRosa added that employees who work at waterparks must know their role in the facility's emergency action plan.

"Depending on the size of the park and the nature and location of the emergency," he said, "different employees may play a role in providing care.

"Many of the standards and best practices seen in the waterpark industry directly carry over to other recreational venues, including public park and recreation providers," DeRosa said. "Lifeguards at all venues should be properly trained and certified and should undergo regular in-service training. Other recreation providers would be well-advised to implement an auditing program of staff, either through the use of a consultant or through peer audits wherein one aquatic director audits a neighboring facility in exchange for a similar audit of his or her own facility."


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.

Peter Whitley, programs director at the Tony Hawk Foundation, an organization that supports recreational programs with a focus on the creation of public skateboard parks in low-income communities, said communities work with risks and skateboarding in skateparks on a community-by-community basis.

"But, we're starting to see now probably 4,000 skateparks in the nation. Trends now that are developing regionally, rather than individually, tend to have more regulation and are more risk-averse, while other states might be more lenient," he said.

Some communities impose height restrictions on the built space, for instance, while others may not.

"In the Pacific Northwest, in western Washington and Oregon, in particular, there are dozens of terrific skateparks that don't engage in risk management practices," he said. "They are treated as any other recreational attraction. To my knowledge, there haven't been any problems.

"Most skateboarding injuries occur for those who have been skateboarding for a short amount of time. They will slip and land on their wrists," which can result in a sprain or fracture.

"That's pretty common. There are not a whole lot of head injuries. Fatalities occur in the street, and most involve a motor vehicle. The rest involve what we refer to as losing control of the board. What I suspect is that people will buy longboards, and cruise around town. And, then they will go down a hill and will not have developed the skills for stopping and avoiding obstacles and things like that," he said.

That's why, ultimately, one of the things communities can do is to find a legitimate place for people to skate.

Indoor skateparks will be in a building that needs to be up to code and need insurance for that attraction, with maintenance expectations, too.

Municipalities will have solid liability and solid insurance policies. But, cities are not liable on a soccer field for a sprained ankle, for example, because that's an inherent risk. Skateboarders understand it is an inherently recreational activity. Therefore, they assume some responsibility.

Indoor skateparks, being a business, require a different kind of insurance framework. The expectation is that they would keep people in that building reasonably safe. Skaters using the indoor facility will have to sign a waiver and pay to use the facility.

Moreover, when parks strictly enforce knee and elbow pads, skaters often will go into the streets, and abandon the helmets and pad laws.

So, "They've displaced those skaters and created a facility that's unattractive to the local users, [prompting skaters to] return to the streets and risk being hit by cars. Those laws work against the best interest of those communities," Whitley said. "We do recognize that strict enforcement in communities can lead to skaters being displaced and lead them back to the streets and make it unattractive for youth."

Whitley noted that a program called Drop Into Skateboarding involves training skateboard instructors and establishing strategies for creating safe skateboarding programs.

"What they do is work with a community that has a skatepark and trains those community leaders on how to train the staff and how to structure classes for the youth. And, they go through [training] on how to fall, how to avoid collisions [as well]," Whitley said.

"We have lots of resources for people to explore skateboard development further," he added. "There are a lot of factors, and we encourage people to investigate the issue before they start launching into the design or policy decisions."

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