Fitness facilities take on risk every day. Risk management is an essential and ongoing job function; managers and owners have a moral and legal obligation to keep members and guests free from hazards. Responsibilities such as hiring certified, capable staff; monitoring weight rooms; cleaning equipment; and overseeing preventive maintenance are absolute necessities in the ongoing effort to keep risk to a minimum. However, if you want to exceed standards—and go above and beyond tidying equipment and hiring floor staff—then take a look at proper and functional facility design. Review the following strategies, and determine whether you can implement one or more of them into your existing setup.

Access Control

Imagine that your friendly front-desk employee is chatting with a member and mistakenly allows a nonmember to enter without having completed the necessary paperwork (aka the waiver). This unofficial guest decides that the BOSU® Balance Trainer looks interesting, and he rolls his ankle while giving it a try. Now what? Is your facility liable for medical care? Or what if your “guest’s” visit was ill-intended, and he stole something from the locker room? You have zero documentation of this individual ever entering or exiting the premises.

It’s crucial that you monitor and enforce proper access control. Member safety, customer satisfaction and exclusivity (honoring the privileges of paying members) are your duty. Most facilities, in order to assist with access control, are designed with one main point of entry and exit. If your property has numerous entry/exit points, simply lock the doors you don’t want utilized, and place signage directing individuals to the main entrance. Your main entryway should lead directly to a front desk where attentive employees determine who enters the facility. Place the membership office or desk within close proximity to the front desk. That way, your membership staff can be a second pair of eyes and attend to nonmember questions. Additional ideas:

  • Install security cameras at the main entrance/exit.
  • Provide electronic card readers.
  • Distribute picture ID cards.

In addition to controlling entry, you must also monitor access within and around the building. The group exercise director at my facility constantly sends emails reminding the instructors to lock the studio doors after class. Although this continual message may seem monotonous, it’s an administrative necessity. Locking the studio doors may greatly reduce risk. Other areas where “free range” should be limited include

  • mechanical areas;
  • laundry rooms;
  • storage closets; and
  • remote areas, such as a specialty studio.

If you allow open access, you’re essentially granting members permission to “play” with unfamiliar equipment while unsupervised.

Clever equipment layout can also guide members in the right direction to control access. For example, create distinct areas for selectorized equipment and free weights, placing the selectorized pieces where they are most easily seen. This helps steer novice members toward the equipment that is safer for beginners. One bonus benefit to limiting access is that it reduces supervisory obligations and frees the staff to assist members in more productive ways.

Supervision

Fitness professionals are constantly supervising clients, group exercise participants, the fitness floor, locker rooms, gyms, etc. Therefore, it’s advantageous to design a facility with supervisory administration in mind. Take a look at your facility’s current layout. Is the free-weight room hidden in a basement, or in an old racquetball-court-turned-cardio-room? Many facilities, especially older ones, renovate by making greater use of existing space. This is a smart, cost-effective way to modernize, add programming and keep up with the competition. However, these remote areas, like the basement or racquetball court mentioned above, are rarely properly supervised.

Seldom do you see a paid, designated staff member sitting in the basement just to supervise. A rotational “check-in” schedule is a common solution, but it is still not ideal. To enhance supervisory efficiency, you should place equipment, fitness desks and offices properly and be strategic with interior windows. Try the following:

  • Keep all “free-range” fitness equipment in areas that staff members constantly supervise.
  • Position fitness desks in a central location, so the desk staff can see the entire fitness floor.
  • Place enclosed fitness offices, as well as tall equipment such as Smith machines and squat racks, around the perimeter of the room to improve visibility and keep sightlines clear.
  • If possible, make sure offices on the perimeter have large interior windows. Staff members who occupy that space can then monitor the main room from their offices. For privacy, install blinds.
  • Design studios and pool areas so that they have large interior windows from which administrators and experienced staff can observe quickly and easily.

Spacing and Traffic Flow

Keep all pathways free and open so that members can move without being obstructed, especially during peak hours. Facilities that have too much equipment or are thoughtlessly designed not only look less aesthetically appealing; they are also a liability. Users need space to walk around, lift, engage in power movements and stretch, without dodging medicine balls. For optimum spacing and traffic flow, the National Strength and Conditioning Association offers the following guidelines (NSCA 2008):

  1. Hallways and circulation passages must be at least 60 inches wide.
  2. Traffic should flow around the perimeter of exercise areas so that members don’t need to enter those areas to move throughout the facility (e.g., so they don’t need to walk through the free-weights area to reach the restroom).
  3. Carpet can be used to designate walkways and to separate resistance training areas that have rubberized flooring.
  4. Emergency exits must be clearly visible, remain free of obstructions and be well-lit at all times.
  5. One clear pathway, at least 36 inches wide, should be available within the facility at all times (this is also required by the Americans with Disabilities Act).
  6. All resistance and cardiovascular equipment should be spaced at least 2 feet apart—preferably, 3 feet.
  7. An area of 49 square feet per user should be provided for stretching and warm-up activities.

The American College of Sports Medicine also publishes facility standards (ACSM 2012); they may differ slightly from the National Strength and Conditioning Association requirements provided above.

Storage

Lack of storage space is a common design flaw. When adequate storage isn’t available, equipment gets stashed in corners, stockpiled in gyms, stuffed into unanchored cabinets and left on workout area floors. This clutters aisles, limits traffic flow, creates more housekeeping duties for staff, gives members free access to use equipment unsupervised and leads to an overall unsafe environment. If you have the opportunity to design or renovate a facility, make sure that proper storage space is high on your list of needs.

When attempting to correct an existing storage issue, think of reorganizing; borrowing storage space from other departments; purchasing temporary options, such as stable cabinetry; and doing a little spring cleaning. In addition, when looking to add equipment and/or programming, be certain you have appropriate storage space before you make the purchase—or else invest in equipment with small storage needs. Gliding™ discs, bands, tubes and toning balls can all be stored in inexpensive, small and even stackable storage bins.

A well-structured design will strengthen your current safety and risk management plan. However, good design is only as good as the personnel who manage it. Implementing well-thought-out design features without an experienced, well-trained staff will ultimately be ineffective. It’s understandable that you may not be able to move your facility’s free-weight room out of the basement or install a large window into an already-built office suite. However, it is important for you to be aware of the location’s existing design limitations so that you can manage and staff your facility accordingly.