The vast majority of instructors in fitness centers are outstanding contributors to the development of their members. There are times, however, as in all professions, that they goof. When it is a risk management blunder, the result can be an injury, followed by litigation.
The following incidents fall into what I call the "Fitness Center Hall of Shame." Every one resulted in an injury and almost every one was followed by a lawsuit.
What follows are actual examples of what can go wrong when management and staff forget about safety. My hope is that by reviewing examples of poor instruction, we can decrease the chance of future injuries and lawsuits.
This "Hall" does not need new inductees.
Lack Of Staff Qualifications
A center in New York was growing so quickly they cut back on their interviewing and the checking of recommendations of applicants. They hired an attractive, physically fit young girl who "had aerobic experience."
The first class was a senior beginners aerobic step class that started with one level and quickly went to three levels within the first ten minutes. A class member tripped and broke an ankle. A lawsuit followed.
The "aerobic experience" of the new instructor was taking aerobic classes for a few months.
Make sure you hire and check on your staff.
Being present is only the first step in the art and skill of supervision. A knowledgeable instructor, working in New Jersey, was in charge of the center's large, free weight room.
During busy times, members got into the habit of leaving weights on the floor rather that putting them back on the rack. A spotter for a buddy doing the chest press stepped on a weight, fell forward and drove the almost fully weighted bar bell down on the chest of the lifter.
The lifter said he was fine. Several weeks later the center received a complaint stating the lifter had broken several ribs.
Failure to Enforce Established Policies
A Pennsylvania club that offered Racquetball, posted large, clear rules for the use of the courts. One of the rules said, "Protective Eye Guards Must Be Worn At All Times."
The center became lax with this rule primary because there were no incidents. When there was a serious eye injury, the rule was quickly re-enforced. There was no lawsuit.
This situation is mentioned because it demonstrates a major risk management problem. We get lazy. Because no one got a ball or racket in the eye, in the course of a week or months, does not mean it won't occur tomorrow. Safety is an on going task.
Misuse of Equipment
Because of the growing interest in Spinning, a New Jersey club converted a racquetball court into a well organized Spinning room. As the activity continued to grow, the center continued to add bikes to the point that there was less than two feet of space between participants.
During a class, one member lost him balance; fell to the side and his head banged into the raising knee of the next biker. Medical opinions suggested this incident resulted in a number of head and face problems. A lawsuit was filed. Several bikes were removed from the room.
Creating Your Own Hazards
A well respected, forward looking fitness center in northern New York placed towel hooks behind each step climber machine for the convenience of the user. The protruding three-inch hook was about three feet from the machine. If the user took one step back all was fine. If he/she took two steps back, they would get the hook in the middle of their back.
Despite complaints, management did nothing to correct what was a hazard for the unsuspecting user. A lawsuit allegedly because of making contact with the hook finally got the attention of management.
When you do something to make things more convenient, make sure it does not create a hazard.
Too Rapid Progression
A middle aged woman in Maryland, was so pleased with her abdominal strength progress that she wanted to move from a two lb. weight behind her head to a ten lb. weight. She also increased the angle of the sit up incline board to the steepest angle. Previously, the sit up board was flat.
The trainer told her to go to an 8 lb. weight and only move up three levels. The women followed his advice. She sued the center for failing to properly advise her regarding training progression after having "neck problems."
Safety is not sexy. People do not go into a profession with the idea of being "number 1 in safety." The hardest part of running a safety first program is that it is easy. It is common sense and therefore you become lackadaisical about safety. When you do a good job and lower the chance of injury to your members, it reinforces complacency.
Owners, management and instructors have to understand safety is a day-to-day thing if you wish to avoid membership in "The Hall of Shame."
About the Author
Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa. The former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., his second book is titled "The School Sports Safety Handbook", published by LRP Publications, in Horsham, Pa. His third book, "The Athletic Administrator's Scheduling Book," was published in March, 2001.
Sport and Recreation Safety Consultant
12 Narbrook Park
Narberth, Pennsylvania 19072