Stop Overlooking Fitness Facility Supervision

By Meghan Mowers & Dr. Peter Titlebaum

Fitness facility equipment, when utilized in the manner intended, is made up of safe pieces of machinery. Unfortunately, ignorance on how to operate machines such as treadmills and resistance machines can easily lead to injury and civil lawsuits. Insufficient supervision and misunderstanding of fitness equipment are easily avoided risks that need to be addressed.

While many fitness centers provide a personal training service, some clients opt out of the opportunity. Those who decline the service and work out alone may be lacking equipment instruction and supervision from an exercise specialist. This increases the potential for participant injury and, with it, legality issues for the company.

Fitness facilities currently take measures to reduce the frequency and magnitude of risk, including maintenance logs, equipment care, training employees in participant interaction and how to respond in emergency situations. Nevertheless, these preventive actions do not ensure proper machinery utilization by participants. This is where the importance of proper supervision comes into play to maintain a safe environment.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 10,000 people a day receive treatment from sport, recreation and exercise (SRE) injuries, and fitness has expanded to an activity not just for young adults but is quickly becoming a recognized activity by children, teenagers and Americans older than 50 years of age. These widening demographics help explain the rapidly rising popularity of the fitness industry despite the economic downturn. According to the 2014 IHRSA Profiles of Success, in 2013, 52.9 million members frequented health clubs and U.S. health club revenue totaled $22.2 billion. The more traffic seen in fitness facilities, the more opportunity for accidents to happen. The National Strength and Conditioning Association has estimated that 80 percent of all court cases regarding athletic injuries dealt with some aspect of supervision. Due to the industry continuing to grow, the significance of supervision will only increase.

Fitness attendants, weight room supervisors or others in charge of keeping facility participants safe are often low-paying, entry-level jobs whose responsibilities include cleaning the machines, putting away stranded equipment and responding with emergency care while overseeing that the facility and its equipment are used in the safest possible manner. These entry-level jobs, with a high turnover rate, are crucial to a well-run business and one of the most important, as well as overlooked, positions in a fitness facility. For example, university fitness facilities often employ students to fulfill these roles and due to graduation, internships or other employment opportunities, have difficulty securing the position for any considerable amount of time.

So how does this affect the facility? The entry-level jobs of fitness attendants are occupied by individuals who aren't considered exercise specialists and lack the knowledge that specialists have gained. In addition to the high turnover rate, this means that comfort and confidence levels in the environment may be impairing the employees' ability to do their jobs. Not being able to execute their duties leads to accidents and negligence lawsuits that end up costing the facility.

While waivers and assumption-of-risk forms may be able to release a facility from acts of negligence in a court of law, the issue still remains: Lack of proper supervision, stemming from lack of knowledge, confidence and comfort on the job, can lead to otherwise avoidable circumstances. Even with a fitness center preforming regular equipment care and logs, there are many potential issues of safety when considering supervision of participants. So what can be done? A simple correction for high magnitude risk exists in proper orientation and documentation.

Orientation and Training

Employee Orientation: Mandating the inclusion of proper fitness equipment utilization in orientation for employees not only ensures that supervisors are able to ascertain whether a participant is utilizing the equipment in the proper manner, but certifies that they are conducting their responsibilities to facility standards. Lacking proper education on fitness equipment and their rules prevents an employee from keeping the environment safe. Employee Training: In addition to orientation before the commencement of the position, regular training can assist in improving employee confidence and review the position's duties and rules. Due to the high rate of turnover and the responsibilities involved, mandatory training should occur approximately twice a year. To ensure training is effective, testing is important to measure an employee's skill level and knowledge. Testing can include hands-on exercises and an on-paper exam portion about facility policy.

Participant Orientation: Participants are less likely to improperly use equipment and machinery if they have base knowledge on its functionality. For new participants of the facility, adding orientation to the already required assumption-of-risk forms or waivers can prove advantageous. Providing brief but informative instruction can prevent misuse and unnecessary injuries from occurring. Orientation doesn't have to be a one-on-one consultation; the method lacks practicality especially when dealing with a larger population. Instead, a simple demonstrational video increases the participants' knowledge of the equipment. Included in the video should be the intended manner of use and a disclaimer advising that any deviation is considered improper use and isn't allowed. Restricting access to the fitness facility until the orientation is complete maintains the participant's and facility's safety as well as enforcing preventative measures.


For a facility to properly manage risk and liability, documentation is at the forefront of necessities. Nothing can be proven without paperwork documenting it occurred. Such is the case in Guerra v. Howard Beach Fitness Center, Inc. where the plaintiff sued the facility after being thrown off a treadmill when its tread shifted. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff when the defense failed to provide evidence that the equipment had been inspected and that they took suitable safety precautions for the people using the exercise equipment.

According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, records need to be kept on the following eight items:

  1. Cleaning and maintenance
  2. Safety procedures
  3. Manufacturer's warranties and guidelines
  4. Assumption-of-risk forms
  5. Medical waivers and clearance forms
  6. Personnel credentials
  7. Injury reports
  8. Professional guidelines and recommendations

In addition, to having clearly written policies informing the employee of all of their responsibilities, have the employee review and sign in the presence of a staff member documents that he understands and accepts his responsibilities. A review of these responsibilities would also be part of the required training discussed above.

How do these methods affect your venue? Let's look at a scenario and assess the necessary steps: A participant is walking backward on a treadmill. An employee must inform the participant that his action is against facility rules. Given that he is a member and therefore underwent orientation and formally agreed to follow the facility rules, consequences are required. The employee would look to see if previous violations had been filed and act accordingly. Keep in mind that facilities can have different consequences, the following is merely an example. All documentation should include the date, time, incident, and consequence, names of the employee and participant, as well as their signatures.

1st offense: Write-up and correction of use
2nd offense: Write-up and warning
3rd offense: Write-up and suspension

Despite being an entry-level job, fitness attendants are one of the most important positions; they are the first and last impression a facility makes on its members and they are in charge of maintaining a safe environment. Orientation and documentation are simple fixes to a common issue found in a growing industry.

Meghan Mowers, CSCS, is a graduate of Ohio Northern University and a member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) with her Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification. Currently, she is pursuing her Master's of Science in Education in Exercise Science at the University of Dayton. Dr. Peter Titlebaum, Professor of Sport Management at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, has more than 25 years' experience in management in the profit, nonprofit, private and public sectors. He speaks and writes on areas of networking, organizational and personal development, educating audiences to be their own advocates.

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