Risk management is often associated exclusively with cleanliness and safety precautions, not with fitness programming. However, it’s just as important to a club’s culture and legal protection to regularly practice fitness risk management.
“Clubs do a good job at ‘global’ risk management, like keeping floors mopped to mitigate slip and fall hazards, or making sure the equipment is in good repair,” said Brian Rawlings, the practice leader for FITLIFE Insurance Program. “While those are very important practices to take on, some of the more severe injuries in clubs can occur during these inherently risky activities.”
That’s not to say cleanliness and safety should fall by the wayside, according to Jennifer Lowe, the national accounts manager at Sports & Fitness Insurance Corporation. “The next best thing a fitness facility can do to prevent injury claims is maintain equipment for both safety and cleanliness,” she said. “Keep maintenance and cleaning logs, and wipe down equipment that gets wet or slippery throughout the day.”
But risk management doesn’t stop at keeping the club clean and safe. In order to protect from member injuries and potential subsequent legal actions, clubs should carefully evaluate the inherent risks associated with various fitness programs and establish the proper risk management protocols.
The most inherently risky exercises are any that ramp up the intensity for members. “High intensity interval training (HIIT) classes are likely to produce less severe, but more frequent injuries,” explained Lowe.
Aside from HIIT classes, there are a few other high-intensity workouts that should be mentioned in fitness risk management protocols:
“The risks are generally associated with the potential for bodily injury, relative to their particular fitness level, and the staff members working with them, supervising the activity and overseeing things,” said Rawlings. “It’s important to make sure you’re working with each individual based on their capabilities, relative to the exercise.”
According to Rawlings, trainers have to know their clients well in order to keep classes safe. “If you’re doing something like HIIT or CrossFit, a lot of people aren’t going to be able to do the exact same exercises,” he said. “So you have to make sure you’re controlling your numbers in a small class environment.”
The riskiest fitness programs aren’t always the most intense, however. With the rising popularity of fitness classes for kids, clubs have to be more careful than ever in their planning and execution of youth programs.
“I think the highest risk for all clubs and organizations is anything involving youth,” said Jayson Scott, the national program director for fitness, sports and recreation at The Cincinnati Insurance Company. “Cases of abuse related to youth sports or camps have been on the rise over the last few years.”
The sad truth is there are people in positions of power who abuse their authority, according to Scott. “We teach our children at a young age to put their trust in the coach, camp counselor or any other individual who may have authority,” he said. “We always love the coaches or counselors who come into our children’s lives and teach valuable lessons like hard work, sportsmanship or just believing in themselves, but the wrong coach can dramatically affect a child and their family for the rest of their lives.”
These risks make it extremely important for clubs to be thorough in staffing decisions and subsequent staff member training.
“It’s imperative your staff is trained to recognize the signs of abuse, along with understanding the different types of abuse that take place with youth,” said Scott. “Does your staff know the characteristics of an offender or what to look out for?”
The best way to keep your members safe during workouts and your club legally protected is to set up the right fitness risk management protocols. Try applying these three tips to your fitness programs:
1. Always pay close attention to the transfer of risk by layering your waiver protection.
“If members are going to participate in one of these riskier classes, you need to have an additional waiver that’s signed and spells out a little more of the specific risks inherent with that activity,” said Rawlings.
Getting help from a nearby law office can also prove beneficial in crafting waivers, according to Lowe. “We always recommend working with a local attorney to develop the best possible liability waiver and medical release forms that are specific to individual state laws,” she said.
2. Make sure trainers can provide constant and qualified supervision.
An underrated value of personal training is the knowledge of how to safely exercise. It doesn’t matter how hard members are pushing themselves if they’re incorrectly executing certain movements and hurting themselves.
“Make sure you’ve got qualified individuals trained and certified within the various class structures and programs you’re offering,” said Rawlings. “Your instructors should have received their various certifications from a national training certification board.”
3. Personal trainers need to understand the medical history of participants before they start the programs.
“This can allow trainers to tailor some of the activities to the needs of members,” said Rawlings. “For example, maybe a member has had shoulder surgery within the last six months, so they can curb some of the activities in the class or allow the individual to do something different as needed.”
It’s critical to have a plan in place to deal with the aftermath of an accident. But the best accidents are the ones that never happen. According to Rawlings, the aforementioned fitness risk management practices will help prevent incidents. “Following these risk management protocols up front should alleviate a majority of accidents,” he said.
Special attention to cleanliness everywhere is important, especially in areas that could easily get wet — swimming pools or fitness floors with waves of sweaty people moving across them.
“It is most important to have non-slip treatments for all surfaces to and from swimming pools and showers at all times,” said Lowe. “Any programming that involves wet areas is most likely to produce the most severe claims for slip and fall accidents, especially programming for seniors.”
In addition to practicing good upkeep in the facility, it’s imperative to set general expectations among staff members for how to interact with members — children or adults — in an appropriate manner.
“Develop guidelines for interactions between individuals,” said Scott. “What are appropriate versus inappropriate behaviors? Discuss certain exchanges, as no organization should allow one-on-one interactions.”
Staffing decisions are of paramount importance. The right instructors, especially for youth programs, can have an amazing effect on the lives of their participants. The wrong instructors can cause a lot of trouble for members and for you.
“When hiring staff or working with volunteers, your organization should be requiring background checks, applications, an extensive interview process and reference checks (preferably of non-family members), combined with a mandatory training program designed to educate your personnel on abuse,” said Scott.
And once they’ve been hired, instructors should undergo rigorous training for working with kids. “Your employees and volunteers should be trained to prevent, recognize and respond to inappropriate behavior that signals psychological, physical or sexual abuse within a youth environment,” he said.
The safety of your members, especially children, should be a club’s top priority — and not just for legal reasons. Members of all ages should feel comfortable in your facility and participating in your programs, which is what makes fitness risk management so important.
“You have a responsibility to keep youth from situations in which they are at increased risk,” said Scott. “Failure to do so could have long-term and far-reaching ramifications for you and your business and could result in legal or civil action.”
And conversely, the proper protocols will not only save you from legal headaches, but create a safer environment in which your members can workout.
“Good fitness risk management allows you to go back and prove to any insurance carriers or legal representation you’re diligent in trying to provide the best practices in protecting your constituents to the best of your ability,” said Rawlings.
At the end of the day, fitness risk management is all about responsibility. “As a business owner, you are responsible for the actions of your employees and what happens on your property,” said Scott. “A proactive approach of establishing written policies, combined with recurring training, should be the foundation of any club’s risk management.”