Areas where risk for liability is common, and how to limit your culpability.
Jeff Dotson, the CFO/CIO of Shapes Family Fitness, with multiple locations in Florida, does everything in his power to ensure his clubs never have to use their liability insurance. “We want to feel like we’ve done everything possible to limit those situations from occurring,” he explained.
However, he acknowledged that where fitness is involved, accidents can, and do happen. According to Dotson, those accidents most commonly occur in strength and cardio areas. “That’s typically where you see the most common liability cases,” he said.
Most accidents are derived from a lack of member education. For example, Dotson explained that members, especially those who have not been in clubs recently, may be unfamiliar with how to properly operate equipment, or do too much, too fast.
After all, cardio equipment especially, is constantly evolving. A member who’s last club visit was 10 years ago, may have used treadmills from an entirely different decade. “On treadmills, some members can ramp up the speed to levels they’re not prepared for,” Dotson explained. “This could cause them to trip or not be able to keep up.”
To avoid these situations, Shapes Family Fitness promotes a “boost” program that provides each new member with education on how to properly use every piece of the club’s equipment. In addition, a staff member surveys the floor on a regular basis to ensure equipment isn’t being misused. “If we see a member using a piece of equipment wrong, we tell them right away,” said Dotson.
By continually surveying the floor, Shapes Family Fitness’ staff can observe any pieces of functional equipment that have not been properly returned to designated places, such as Kettlebells or BOSU balls. Functional pieces of equipment can pose their own risk, if members trip and fall over misplaced pieces.
Ultimately, the education of both the members and staff is Dotson’s key for limiting liability in equipment areas, something his insurance company has continually encouraged. “It’s important that each member is getting good education on how to properly use equipment,” continued Dotson. “Have educated staff available. Proper education of your staff helps eliminate liability issues — and, I mean educate everyone, from the cleaning staff to managers.”
At Hockessin Athletic Club in Hockessin, Del., John Peoples, the general manager, explained that locker rooms could be particularly risky in terms of liability. “‘Slip-and-falls’ tend to be the most prevalent types of suits,” said Peoples.
To prevent slips, Hockessin uses multiple anti-slip products. “We put down non-slip rubber mats, primarily in our family locker room,” explained Peoples. “We also utilize floor fans to keep the areas as dry as possible.” In addition, Hockessin’s locker rooms are treated with an anti-slip product called Slip Solution, to reduce the risk of falls.
However, Peoples explained, “Problems can be minimized by having staff be attentive to keeping the areas clear,” he said. “We do regular walkthroughs during the course of the day to make sure no problem conditions exist and the space is clean.”
When falls do occur, Peoples said that being prepared — having the proper procedures in place — is key. “Limiting liability has to be the job of all staff, and not just management,” he said. “Being aware and taking appropriate preventative measures, and having processes and procedures in place should a problem arise, is essential.”
If a member has fallen and an employee is notified, even if the member wasn’t hurt, the incident should be documented. “The first priority of course is to make sure the member is okay and to get medical help if necessary,” explained Peoples. “From there, we will fill out an incident report outlining the details and have the member sign the report, if possible. We review the report and take corrective action if necessary with regards to the facility.”
Peoples explained that following up with the member the next day is vital. “A follow-up call to the member is done the next day by our customer service director, or the department manager [in the club] where the incident occurred,” he said. “In the event there was claim of injury later on, it is best to have as much documentation as possible.”
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to discover his or her child has been injured or harmed in someone else’s care. With this in mind, Merritt Athletic Clubs in Baltimore, Md. has taken multiple steps to ensure the childcare it provides is safe.
According to Maria Miller, the regional kid’s club manager for Merritt Athletic Clubs, the most important step to ensuring safe childcare is having age-specific areas in which children can play with kids their own age. “You don’t want to have infants in an area where balls could be kicked or other children could run into them,” she said. “Having an area specifically for infants only, protects them from getting hurt.”
During kid’s club hours, various Merritt employees have been positioned in each age-specific area to keep an eye on children and ensure all areas are safe. Keeping a proper staff-to-child ratio is important. For children ages 3 to 5, Merritt requires one employee for every eight children. For children ages 6 to 10, Merritt staffs one employee for up to 15 children, and three employees for 16 to 30 children. “As long as you have the right people in charge and you’re following your state’s regulations, your kid’s centers should be fairly safe,” said Miller. When hiring for the kid’s centers, Merritt performs background checks on all applicants.
If the worst-case scenario occurs and a child is hurt, Miller explained that the parent would be notified immediately. As a running policy, parents aren’t allowed to leave the premise without their children. “Then, we would assess the child and do any type of first aid that’s necessary,” said Miller. “Everyone working in the kid’s club has to be CPR and first-aid certified.”
To ensure child safety even further, pictures of both parents and their children are stored in the club’s club management software. “That way, there’s never a question as to what child belongs to which parent,” said Miller.
Whether it’s your kid’s center, strength/cardio area or locker rooms, being proactive has been the common message club operators hammered home in terms of how to limit liability. Ensure you have proper procedures and plans in place in case accidents do happen, and speak with your insurance provider to ensure you’re up-to-date on your state’s laws and regulations. Although liability does happen, it most definitely can be limited.
By Rachel Zabonick