We all understand that accidents happen. Unfortunately, in the fitness industry, lawsuits happen as well. And it takes only one small incident to put you out of business.

Every day that a club opens its doors, owners and staff should assume that an incident or injury may occur. While the likelihood that such an event actually will take place is small, your employees must be prepared for the worst and know exactly what to do in any potential situation. As owners and managers, you must take every reasonable measure to keep your facility safe. The following risk management practices will help you protect members, staff and all property by either preventing or dealing appropriately with injuries or negative incidents.

Educate Staff

Train staff to recognize impending dangers before accidents happen. Require employees to walk through the facility regularly, examining all equipment and surfaces for potential problems. This process should include a thorough check of every room in your facility, plus outside areas. Staff should be looking for anything that could pose a safety hazard, from wet spots in the locker rooms to weights left out in the open to an uncovered outlet in the childcare area (Eason 2007). In addition to scrutinizing equipment and surfaces, staff must regularly check that all exits are clearly marked, well-illuminated and not blocked by either equipment or people. Staff should immediately remedy and document any problems found during these walk-throughs. Use a facility maintenance log to ensure inspections are done at regular intervals.

Gym injuries are very often caused by slipping and falling. Falls can occur on wet surfaces, around general clutter, on uneven surfaces created by unsecured mats or ripped carpet or on slippery stairs. Common causes of outdoor falls include uncleared ice or snow, debris, cracked pavement or potholes. Make sure your outdoor property and parking lot are a safe zone as much as the inside of your gym.

Train staff to watch all exercisers closely. Many individuals overdo it when working out, thinking they will achieve better results. Employees must always keep their eyes open for warning signs that someone’s health could be in danger. Signals to look for are dizziness; swelling of the face, hands or feet; or signs that someone is in any sort of pain, no matter how little. If members are misusing equipment, staff should prevent injuries by talking to the members immediately and showing them correct form; staff should not wait until a member asks how to use a piece of equipment.

Educate Members

Educate not only staff but also members. Conduct regular sessions to instruct them on the importance of gym safety principles. Many people, especially those who are just starting to exercise, are eager to get in shape and want to dive in headfirst. Members need to understand that although exercise is highly beneficial, it can cause serious damage to the body if done incorrectly. “To keep people safer in gyms, my suggestion is to focus on getting them to move better,” explains Ron Jones, MS, a Santa Clarita, California, fitness pro who works with Wellcoaches® Corp. “I start with joint mobility, because if people can at least move better from their joints, then they are better able to use the current strength they have,” he adds. In addition to the basics of teaching members to use appropriate exercise techniques, to wipe down machines and to stay hydrated, there are many other topics that you should cover to encourage safety. Ideally, hold regular educational classes for members throughout the year.

In your safety classes, encourage members to do the following:

  • Keep all personal belongings in lockers. Do not leave gym bags or purses on the gym floor, even if they appear to be out of the way. Leaving belongings on the floor poses tripping hazards and increases the risk of theft.
  • Get protection from germs and bacteria by frequently washing hands, wearing flip-flops in the locker room (instead of going barefoot) and covering any breaks or cuts on the skin.
  • Never share towels, razors, sweatbands, goggles or other personal items that may contain sweat or germs.
  • Warm up and cool down. Warming up before any physical activity stretches the muscles and loosens the blood vessels for better blood circulation. Equally important, cooling down gently after working out helps the pulse return to normal and limbers up muscles.
  • Maintain proper form when using weights and cardio equipment. Ask for assistance if they are unsure of proper technique or don’t know how to use a piece of equipment.
  • Use appropriate personal safety equipment, such as mouth guards and goggles if playing basketball or participating in a martial arts class. Protect weaker joints with wrist, knee or elbow pads, as necessary. (Note: You can add a profit center by selling these products in your pro shop.)

Legal Protection

Having appropriate gym insurance coverage and security cameras will also promote safety. These items are the bare minimum your facility should have in terms of legal protection for members, staff and all property.

Ultimately, recording everything you do in the pursuit of safety is the most important step you can take. Detailed documentation&mash;of all hazards found, all repairs undertaken, all procedures followed in an emergency and all medical care given&mash;will make a great difference in the event that you are faced with a lawsuit (Cohen 2010). Regular maintenance reports, incident reports and signed waivers help prove due diligence and protect facility owners and staff from liability.

Require each new member to complete a waiver, an emergency contact form and, ideally, a physician’s release form stating that the individual is fit for exercise. Although paperwork can be frustrating to new members, the more documentation you have for each person, the better. You can either create these forms yourself, find templates online or download IHRSA’s Guide to Club Membership and Conduct (http://download.ihrsa.org/pubs/club_membership_conduct.pdf), which includes many printable forms, such as a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire, a Physician’s Release for Exercise Form and a Health Status Questionnaire.

If an incident does occur, hold a staff debriefing session immediately afterward in order to protect yourself and your business. Allow staff members to share their initial reactions, vent their fears or frustrations, and review the facts. The session typically should be held within 1–4 hours after the conclusion of the critical incident. This meeting is an opportunity to examine and document the facts, to discuss what staff saw and to ensure you have all the information you need for the incident report: date, time, location, who provided care and any other crucial details. Good documentation of this information will prove critical in the event of litigation.

In addition, make sure that all employees are CPR and first-aid certified and, more important, that they keep these certifications up-to-date. To enforce this, require staff to provide documentation each time they complete a CPR or first-aid course. Ensure that all staff have access to a phone list with relevant numbers for local emergency personnel, medical facilities and staff supervisors.

Emergency Action Plan

If you don’t already have one, create an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) for your facility. This plan should cover all policies and procedures, from evacuating the building safely to notifying police of a problem to detailing which employees are responsible for which tasks in the event of a critical incident. If you don’t have an emergency action plan, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a website to help you create one at www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/evacuation/index.html.

Creating your EAP is only the first step. All staff must know exactly where the plan is located. Preferably, have several copies in several locations. In addition, hold regular drills to run through the emergency procedures for getting people out of the building. If an actual emergency happens, staff may not have time to read through a long list of instructions. It is wise to run drills several times a year.

An essential aspect of your EAP should be a detailed fire safety plan. One of the best things you can do is contact your local fire station. We are experts in fitness, but they are experts in fire safety. Request that a member of the fire station staff visit your facility, discuss safety procedures specific to your club and assist you in designing a thorough fire safety plan (Raisch-Siegel 2007). Here are five important points to include when developing the plan:

  1. Assign specific responsibilities to staff members in the event of a fire.
  2. Know your fire alarm system and your panel; have all employees trained in how to read the panel and use it correctly.
  3. Conduct club walk-throughs and pay particularly close attention to gas lines, pool chemicals and electrical closets for anything unusual or faulty.
  4. Assign a spokesperson to greet the fire department and provide all necessary information regarding the emergency.
  5. Never silence an alarm until you have identified the problem.

In today’s litigious society, managers must ensure that they are taking every possible step to keep facilities, staff and clients as safe as possible. Equally important, every employee must be responsible for understanding and implementing safety and prevention measures as well as proper claim reporting. Good risk management practices will not only protect your business but also keep members safe—a win-win situation for all.