Keeping Fit, Keeping Safe

Safety Elements Can Be Attractively Designed

By Rick Dandes

Owners and operators of fitness centers know that offering a clean, welcoming and, above all, safe facility is not just good for attracting new clients and retaining old ones. It also can protect you if injuries suffered by a member result in a claim being submitted to your insurance carrier or even result in a lawsuit being filed against your organization.

"You can offer the best, most modern equipment in beautifully designed spaces, but for most people, safety is of upmost importance," said Rudy Fabiano, design director for Fabiano Designs in Montclair, N.J. "There are several components of safety: There is the physical safety of the products that you are using, meaning a floor has the right coefficient of friction. This actually tells you how anti-slip it is, how resistant it is to slippage, and that is a requirement by code." Use a flooring with a very low coefficient of friction in a wet area and the probability of someone falling is greater than not.

There is also placement safety, or how the equipment is arranged. A crowded weight room, for example, would be unsafe if you don't have enough clearance or walkway space between areas. If the area is too crowded, it leaves no room for error if somebody drops a weight.

"I think safety is also about educating people," added Jeff Nagel, owner of NAGELSport, Nagel Design, in Edmonds, Wash. With all the emphasis on wellness, which companies are stressing as a way of keeping employee health care costs down, "some people are coming back into the gym who are extremely deconditioned or very unknowledgeable on how to use gym equipment. They need to understand from the initial walkthrough tour of a club that it's a safe place where they can go in and know they will learn how to use the equipment."

Space-Specific Safety

The keys to a great cardio room, said Stephen Tharrett, president, Club Industry Consulting, Highland Village, Texas, include:

  • Providing sufficient operational space for the equipment as well as for circulation. "Ideally," Tharrett said, "you want to provide approximately 50 square feet per piece of equipment. You want to make sure there is at least three feet of space behind each piece of cardio, and if possible, six feet. You also want to make sure you provide circulation corridors to the equipment with a width of at least three feet.
  • Place equipment in modules or sections rather than creating one massive line of equipment. In essence, create neighborhoods of pieces so people can socialize if desired.
  • Provide the proper levels of lighting. The lighting should be indirect and provide at least 40-, and preferably 50-, foot candles at eye level.
  • Provide entertainment alternatives. This might include some equipment with the newest embedded LCD screens, but also areas with large-screen TVs and possibly some areas with no external stimuli. Cardio is all about distraction, Nagel added. "I think proper fitness design should really encourage people to exercise and reach their goals, so we suggest providing an environment that helps with distractions, whether it is personal viewing screens or multiple screen options or all the above. I think the perfect environment is where someone can come in, get on a treadmill or bike and you can watch TV, surf the internet, watch people working out or just watch people."
  • Keep ambient noise at a reasonable level.
  • Provide the right type of flooring. Many clubs now provide a rubber surface. Carpeted floors lessen the ambient noise levels and can be a great option in some areas. Finally, especially in Europe, some clubs are using wood floors, which provide a more upscale environment.

The type of flooring used in group exercise is heavily dependent on the type of activity you are offering, Tharrett continued. "Cushioned wood floors—and bamboo is now used by many clubs instead of wood—work best for most group exercise classes. For group cycling classes you might consider using a high-quality rubber floor, as it does not show the wear from moving bikes and is easier to clean when it comes to the excess moisture produced in cycling classes. Another option used in some Pilates and yoga studios are cork floors or bamboo floors with an underlayment."

What are some of the general considerations in choosing the best floor for your fitness center gymnasium? Experienced athletes want the optimum give and slide characteristics to protect ankles and hips that wood and premium synthetic products offer, said Don Brown, technical director of a Mercer, Wis.-based athletic floor system manufacturer. "Those who care for the surfaces look for a product that is impervious to damage, so use and maintenance need to be considered. Using lifecycle guidelines to help develop cost-over-time predictions, a properly cared for wood floor should last 60 years with annual rescreening and periodic sand refinishing. Their synthetic counterparts usually need some refurbishing in 12 to 15 years, and will require either total replacement or an overpour at that time."

Maintenance is also a prime concern. Brown noted, given tight budgets and limited manpower. A walk-behind scrubber is a good investment, he said, making the routine cleaning process go more smoothly. With other attachments, a scrubber can be used in other areas of a facility as well.

For the free weight areas and the resistance machines, provide sufficient operational space, Tharrett, of Club Industries Consulting, said, "which is typically around 50 square feet per unit; with smaller pieces you can allocate less space. What you need to make sure to do is provide sufficient circulation space so members can easily traverse the space."

Centers should consider leaving a 3-foot corridor and or circulation space if they have lines of equipment, Tharrett said, and leave at least 18 inches between pieces if side by side. As for flooring, a cushioned rubber floor is a good choice to absorb sound and provide cushion.

The Perception of Safety

All well and good, Fabiano said, "but there must also be an overall perception of safety, which comes into play more in 24-hour clubs, where individuals might actually be working out at very late hours.

"In the higher-end clubs that I deal with," Fabiano added, "the element of member or non-member being allowed into the club is an issue. Sadly, this is a product of the new world in which we live. My sense is that at some point, that is going to be a design element we are going to have to deal with. It's a tough one. Designers don't want to bring it up because we're inferring that bad things are going to happen or could happen, which we know that they do."

Fabiano works with Jewish Community Centers, "and the ones we work with have been on alert for some time. So there is a real need to make sure than anybody who comes through the security is allowed and should be there."

There is also the element of child safety. Many fitness clubs provide child-care services, and many community centers offer preschool programs. "If you have children on your premises," Fabiano said, "you don't want them to walk through the equipment. When we design children's areas, we always place them by side walls, near where there is an emergency exit. So, if there is danger, a fire or some kind of emergency, there is a very natural exit out of the building."

Accessibility & Senior Safety

Accessibility is crucial for any public facility. The ADA requires a 5-foot clearance in circulation paths so those in a wheelchair can access equipment. Consequently, centers should ensure that at least one circulation pathway provides this level of clearance. Furthermore, club owners might want to consider providing an area specifically for those needing accessible equipment. ADA requires that a person with disabilities must be able to access the equipment in a wheelchair; ADA also says there needs to be a clear space of 30 inches by 48 inches adjacent to each unit that will be accessed by those with disabilities. As for flooring, you can use the same flooring as the general areas, but make sure to provide ramps if there is a change in height.

Pay particular attention to the locker room, and the wet areas, Nagel added. "When you first think of the handicapped, it seems like a very narrow marketplace, but as our population continues to age, terms like handicapped get blurred … to where you want to include people that are just aging."

When you are looking at the wet areas with tile floors you need to go beyond the regulated slip coefficients provided by manufacturers. Take a 68-year-old man who has to start exercising because he has a heart issue or he is overweight; after a hard workout he goes to the shower room but he's feeling a little worn out from his workout. "I always use products on my wet area floors that far exceed the industry standard for slip co-efficiency because I don't want people slipping and hitting their heads," Nagel said. He suggested using a smaller scale tile, where you have a good amount of grout lines in it that allows for the feet to really grip.

Fabiano has another suggestion: When he designs a hospital facility, where there are a significant number of elderly users, he makes sure there is an alarm somewhere in the locker or shower area in case someone falls, or just needs assistance.

Live by the Rules, But Don't Overdo It

It is essential, Tharrett said, that facilities post rules, whether it's the weight area, cardio area or pool area.

"According to both American College of Sports Medicine and AS International (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials), there is certain wording and certain messages that you want to post in these areas," he said. You want to let people know that they should seek assistance before using any equipment, use a spotter if lifting in free weights. Examples of signage can be found in the ACSM Standards and also in a soon-to-be-released resource book related to the standards.

"As an expert witness," Tharrett explained, "I have been on multiple cases where the issue of signage has been a key point for the claimant's case. Signage plays multiple roles in reducing risk, but also increasing the enjoyment of the facility."

Having signage in the fitness areas that cautions people about lifting weights without a spotter or using unfamiliar equipment without asking for assistance can help reduce a facility's risk. Meanwhile, Tharrett continued, there are opportunities to provide instructional signage in fitness areas that will help people more effectively pursue their fitness regime (placards showing a beginners routine, placards demonstrating how to use a machine, etc.). Signage in the wet (steam and whirlpool) and heat modality areas (sauna) that provides warnings about the risks and then provides cautionary directions on how to lower or avoid that risk is essential.

On the other hand, cautioned Fabiano, if you have too many rules around the space, you probably have not done a good job in either educating or training members. If you have convenient towel drops where it makes sense to have one, it should be used. If you don't, people will drop towels all over the place. "Obviously," he said, "running, spitting and cleaning up the equipment you've just used is general etiquette. You can do that in your contract or orientation. It is important to post some rules in the locker rooms so people have a clear understanding of what is expected and what is not. Your attorneys will tell you that is a wise thing to do. But I'd be careful about posting too many rules when you are given a tour, or it might seem like this is a facility that isn't so much fun."

Safety as a Design Element

Being safe can add to the attractiveness of a space. There was a time when you'd check in and the whole floor was rubber with no delineated areas, no pathways or aisles. Most likely you walked through the equipment to get to the locker rooms. "We advocate being clear as far as pathways go," Fabiano said. "Why not use different materials with different areas? When you are selling memberships and doing a tour, having a pathway is a great way to introduce new people to what you have."

Safety should be a design element from the planning stage, Tharrett explained. If the right architect is hired, one who has experience with designing fitness facilities, then safety will likely be addressed. "Before designing any facility," he said, "you need to create a program plan that identifies the various functions you want to provide, and the scope of activity expected. A program plan allows you to properly allocate space based on expected usage levels and the activities to be offered." Knowing that you should provide 40 to 60 square feet per expected participant in a group exercise class provides for greater safety and comfort. From this an architect can address both form and function.

The aesthetic appeal of a facility can be achieved when an architect effectively uses lighting, colors, floor surfaces and non-linear lines to create an interesting space, all of which should not be negatively impacted by the requirements for safety, Tharrett said. "Safety involves providing sufficient circulation spaces and corridors, eliminating blind spots, having sufficient levels of lighting, using proper floor surfaces, like using 1 inch square high coefficient of friction tiles in wet areas, and having the proper temperature, humidity and air circulation."

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