Certifiably Safer

Why & How Certification Improves Safety

By Kelli Ra Anderson

It's official. Studies now confirm what many in the recreation industry suspected or already knew. There is a definitive link between certification and improved safety in recreation facilities according to reports in the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC), introduced by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) this year.

The Code, designed to provide a single-source guideline for aquatic operations and safety, cited several studies that reported significantly higher rates of OSHA violations, pool closures and injury across the nation by those operating a pool without proper training and certification.

"The MAHC Annex, which provides the Code's scientific justification, provides the references that demonstrate health code violations are common," said Thomas Lachocki, chief executive officer of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). "But they are reduced when operators are trained to this standard."

One of the Code's recommendations? Get certified.

With safety easily ranked the number-one priority in the recreation industry, it only makes sense to ensure staff at all levels, for all kinds of jobs (not just in aquatics), have the kind of training, background and continuing knowledge to keep equipment, patrons and employees free from harm. But who really needs to be certified? And by what organization? How can you know if a personal trainer, pool operator, lifeguard or even backhoe driver is adequately equipped to do their job well and keep everyone safe in the process?

The trouble is, with every state having their own requirements, and few standards, everyone has a different answer. Top managers of award-winning facilities and professionals in their field, however, share some of their insights that help shed a little light on a complicated issue.

Is It Really Necessary?

Obviously, if a state mandates certain certifications for certain jobs, there is at least a baseline from which to start evaluating a facility's overall safety compliance and readiness. But when lives are at stake, managers need to go above and beyond the status quo, as in the case of climbing wall instruction, to ensure their instructors are not only trained in commonly accepted standards in the industry, but to know how to communicate effectively with patrons. Higher standards beyond just the baseline are in order.

"Climbing is inherently dangerous," said Daniel Jeanette, member services coordinator with the Climbing Wall Association Inc. (CWA). "From the manager's standpoint, the climbing wall instructor is often at the front lines of a system designed to manage risk within the facility. The instructor needs to be trained appropriately on how to convey those risks to the customer along with certain technical knowledge, and it is the awareness of risk and the ability to convey it appropriately to customers that the Climbing Wall Instructor certification seeks to elevate to a higher standard."

When lives are at stake, managers need to go above and beyond the status quo to ensure their instructors are not only trained in commonly accepted standards in the industry, but to know how to communicate effectively with patrons.

More than just hoping someone knows their job, good certification assures a manager that they do. "The district and our participants benefit from our staff being trained and/or certified because this way we know that the staff is educated and properly trained," said Jim Reuter, executive director of the Carol Stream Park District in Illinois and a 2014 award winner with the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA). "It's extremely important to know that our fitness staff know how to instruct others in the proper techniques so that no one gets hurt."

Certification is also important as a standard of professionalism, a growing demand in the recreation industry. "Employers hiring professionally are beginning to seek out those with certification because of the value they bring to their agency," said Julie Boland, director of membership with the NRPA, about to celebrate their 50th anniversary. "It is recognized that our programs are top certification in the field and individuals bring that value to their communities to demonstrate their knowledge with professional certification."

Bottom line, however, accredited certification can mean the difference between life and death. Brad Anderson, facility program supervisor of aquatics in the city of Englewood, Colo., and director of Anderson Aquatics, has certainly seen plenty of seasoned candidates come through his CPO certification program woefully ignorant of key concepts.

"Water chemistry is one of the biggest 'a-ha' moments," Anderson said about the most significant change he sees in their understanding about their job. But an even greater concern is how many facilities put their pools in the hands of part-time teenagers each summer. "We tend to turn over our water chemical readings to 15- and 16-year-olds and we don't train them. They have no idea what they're reading or the ramifications if the pH is off.

"It's not just about killing bugs, either, but learning about clarity of water. If the water chemistry is off, it leads to cloudy water and we've all heard the reports of bodies not found for two days at the bottom of a pool. If you can't see the bottom, you also can't see the drains—there's a reason for the Virginia Graeme Baker (VGB) law—to make sure drains are secure at all times. We have to see those main drains or something bad can happen."

Of course, safety concerns aren't limited to aquatics. Fitness trainers, too, if not properly trained and certified to accurately assess the physical condition and capability of a client, may prescribe a fitness routine that unnecessarily stresses joints, muscles and hearts. It isn't enough for someone to be smart, engaging or even experienced as a trainer. Lack of professional training that provides a knowledge of exercise, anatomy, physiology, exercise assessments and prescriptions (to name a few) put patrons at risk by having them perform unsafe exercises using bad form or giving bad advice. Fitness is about health, not just fitting into the right pant size.

Ensuring that your staff is certified and trained in safety not only reduces potential for injury (everyone's main concern), but also reduces the cost that comes with preventing claims in workers' compensation or litigation. "Managers have a responsibility to comply with the standard of care for training staff to prevent illness, injury and even death," Lachocki warned. "If they fail to live and prove compliance to the standard of care, they increase the likelihood that they and their facility owners would be held liable for damages if an incident occurred."

A Credit to Their Field

However, not all certifications are created equal. Just because someone is certified doesn't mean they have the necessary knowledge or expertise actually required to do their job safely. In fact, according to IDEA Health and Fitness Association, up to 45 percent of trainers who claim to be certified, aren't. (One way to know for sure is to access the U.S. Register of Exercise Professionals, a public registry to validate people's credentials at www.usreps.org.)

In the age of the Internet, a simple online test, a few hundred bucks or maybe a weekend of classes may be all it takes to hang up a "certified" shingle. "Buyer beware," cautioned Dr. Bruce A. Sherman, consultant, with a doctorate in exercise physiology and more than 30 years of industry experience. "What personal training certification should they have? Some are better than others. Some are comprehensive and quite rigorous, like ACE and NAFM."

Accreditation is the key. According to Anthony Wall, director of professional education with the American Council on Exercise (ACE), strong accrediting organizations like the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) essentially set the standard for third-party assessments for a number of associations within the fitness industry. They assess the professional competency and establish accreditation standards. They set a benchmark for an organization to stick to and adhere to, to ensure everybody who goes through a program has met basic competency.

"There are degrees of certification," Wall explained. "Our fitness professionals at ACE have accredited certification. There are lots of people out there that call what they have certification, but it's not a certification to demonstrate competency. There's a number of companies out there who put together a curriculum without the gold standard of ensuring it's peer reviewed or meets a role delineation for the job that the person is going to do."

Familiar accredited organizations like ACE, the American Council of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the National Collegiate Scouting Association (NCSA), Starfish and AWI to name a few, however, are examples of those that provide the kind of rigorous certification managers can trust.

Among the characteristics of a quality certification are the inclusion of CPR and first aid training as part and parcel of a curriculum, negating any need for those certified to get that additional certification. These kinds of certifications also require renewal every few years to prove their members are in good standing, and require continuing education to remain eligible.

Safety for patrons, employees and a facility is also likely to be improved by administrative certification. The NRPA, for example, has long offered a Certified Park and Recreation Professional (CPRP) with more than 4,200 certified. Recognizing the value of demonstrating professionalism, they have recently added a new level of certification, the Certified Park and Recreation Executive (CPRE), which only 145 have successfully completed so far. But whether covering issues of finance, planning or risk management methods, safety is improved.

"I think all of our certification programs cover safety elements in one way or another," Boland said. "CPRP and CPRE approach safety from an aspect of maintenance standpoint, risk management plans, security plans, identifying safety concerns and general safety for patrons."

The Right Tool for the Right Job

Even with an impressive list of acronyms behind their names, certified instructors or professionals still require a position best suited for their qualifications. Some credentials are designed to meet specific needs in the industry, and managers need to ensure they are the right ones for a particular job.

Top facilities see the cost of continuing education for certification as an investment in safety to help employees stay current in their fields and keep their recreational community safe.

When evaluating someone as a fitness instructor, or personal trainer, for example, it is possible they are an ideal group fitness instructor. But, if asked to work one-on-one, they may not have that experience or expertise. Being good at one thing doesn't mean they will be good at all areas of their field.

Or, an instructor may have experience working with the elderly or with teens. It is important to know their specialization; it takes a different person to understand the needs of different demographics, to understand that population's values or goals.

Then there are certifications that are simply good for everyone to have with regard to safety. "The city of Plano has taken a stance that all of our employees be certified in CPR and very basic elements of response," said Amy Fortenberry, CPRE, with 25 years of experience and director of parks and recreation for the city. "We've had great success rates and have even saved lives when some people have had cardiac arrest."

In some cases, certification depends on knowing the unique needs of your facility. At the City of Tampa Parks and Recreation in Tampa, Fla., they require a pool operator to be certified not just as a CPO or AFO, but in scuba. "We don't drain our pools to work on them," explained Barry Thomas, team supervisor. "You have to have scuba certification to use scuba apparatus to do repairs underwater if it requires it."

Continuing Education

In fact, putting their money where their mouth is, top facilities see the cost of continuing education for certification as an investment in safety to help employees stay current in their fields and keep their recreational community safe.

Once certified, many facilities can use these employees to properly train, apprentice and certify other employees for a fraction of the cost. In some cases, facilities can even use it to financial advantage, offering certification classes to the community as part of their regular programming.

Certification, however, is not one-time training. To maintain skills and keep up with new information, technology and trends, quality certifications require regular renewal and continuing education. Continuing education, whether it is through regularly provided in-service programs, approved classes by the certifying organization, or even surprise audits for evaluation, are great ways to keep staff current and on their toes.

Having employees attend annual industry conferences is another key way to ensure staff is on top of the latest information and trends, with the added benefit that often new, improved ideas and renewed enthusiasm follow them back home where everyone can benefit. Trade magazines, too, are an easy way for people to stay on top of industry news and to discover new ways to improve safety.

"Certification is important to the Carol Stream Park District. There is a cost associated with it, of course," Reuter conceded, "but without the training and certification, someone may not be prepared to fulfill their role. And what is the cost of a life?"

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