Every club struggles with safety and liability issues. In addition to OSHA, state, and local regulations governing employee safety, clubs must take every reasonable precaution to protect their members from harm - while still offering a satisfying service experience. With more and more private clubs adding (or expanding) fitness centers, the subject of safety (and liability) takes on even greater importance.
How do you offer your members a comprehensive, well-equipped fitness program without engendering significant risk? After all, exercise necessarily involves stress to the human body - both to the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. Unless you stress the muscles - including the all-important cardiac muscle - you can't improve their health and fitness. Yet the stress that we call exercise raises the risk of any of a number of injuries, including those - such as a heart attack - that can result in death. In this article, we'll look at the major risks inherent in offering exercise to your members, and how you can both minimize those risks and reduce the club's liability for any accidents which may occur.Cardiovascular Risks
Exercising does - temporarily -- raise the risk of heart attack, even though it reduces your overall risk throughout the rest of the day and night. However, there are a few facts that can help us recognize when the risk is highest:
Of course, you can't always prevent every incident. Your club's facility should have a well-developed emergency procedure in case of cardiac incident. It should also be equipped (or have close at hand) with an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) and CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) apparatus. Fitness staff should maintain current training in CPR and AED use.Musculoskeletal Risks
With members making use of weights, exercise machines, and other exercise devices, it's almost inevitable that accidents will occur. Nevertheless, we have found that there are ways to reduce the risks of dangerous falls, impact injuries, joint sprains, muscle strains, etc.
First and foremost, it is essential that members be instructed in proper exercise techniques. You wouldn't expect people to take up tennis safely without lessons, yet we often hear of clubs who believe that fitness centers can be unstaffed or manned with only untrained personnel. Proper instruction is not only advantageous - it may indeed reduce the club's legal liability in case of accident. David L. Herbert, J.D., is perhaps the preeminent expert in legal matters pertaining to exercise and fitness programs. His book, Legal Aspects of Preventive, Rehabilitative, and Recreational Exercise Programs, co-authored with William G. Herbert, Ph.D., is considered by many to be the "bible" of exercise-related law.
While Herbert acknowledges that some risk can be contained by having participants sign a properly-worded "informed consent" or "liability waiver" form (best administered by staff), he maintains that supervision is essential. He goes so far as to recommend that, even after a member is instructed in proper equipment use, he or she must be adequately supervised while using the equipment. As Herbert notes in his text, in the event that equipment misuse or potential danger is noticed, the participant's exercise should be stopped, the errors corrected, and verbal reinforcement given. Obviously, only well-trained professional staff members can provide this kind of instruction and supervision. The huge "up-side" to that kind of staffing is the markedly increased facility use which goes with it. Professionally staffed fitness centers - like a tennis facility with top pros - attract members and potentially increase revenue, along with member satisfaction.Equipment Designs
In addition to having members sign legal forms and properly staffing your facility, the next best risk-reducer is installation of the right kinds (and brands) of equipment. Certain types of equipment are more dangerous than others. For example, treadmills are by far the most dangerous machines in a fitness facility, causing the greatest number of serious accidents. Falls and injuries can easily occur to members who try to mount or dismount a moving belt, drift off the belt while watching a TV or other distraction, push the wrong button on the computer controller, or even try to chase a towel or iPod they've dropped while walking/running. Because of the serious risks, we recommend the following precautions when selecting and installing treadmills:
Cycles and elliptical machines typically pose no serious hazard, although ellipticals sometime have moving parts that should be placed to avoid tripping other members. With weight training machines, we recommend looking for the following features:
For those members who prefer free weights - and there will be some - we recommend rubberized dumbbells placed on easy-to-access racks. Finally, barbell fans can likely be satisfied with a Pro-Spot brand machine, which places a barbell on electronically-controlled cables. This unit allows complete freedom of movement, but also locks the bar in place as soon as you release it - providing a high level of safety even for exercisers working alone.
Developing a safe facility is a process that involves the building, the equipment, the layout, the signage, proper legal forms, staffing, and instruction. Covering those bases will ensure that your risks are limited while your customer service is maintained at a high level.
Douglas Baumgarten M.S., President of CCF, is a graduate of Harvard University and holds a Masters degree in Exercise Science from California University of Pennsylvania. He has over 25 years of experience in the fitness field, and has achieved certifications from the American College of Sports Medicine, National Academy of Sports Medicine, and American Academy of Health-Fitness Professionals.
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