Behind the Scenes

Woman's Undiscovered Death in Steam Room Shows How Routines Should Never Become Routine

Akiko Belich, 77, died in a steam room at a 24 Hour Fitness in Littleton, Colorado, in March. It's a sad end for the widow and grandmother of three who had moved to the United States from Japan in her 30s and lived her life as a seamstress, according to her obituary.

Just as sad is that no one discovered that Belich had passed out in the steam room, which she entered at some point after 1 p.m. on the afternoon of March 29, until two members discovered her body at 7:45 a.m. the next day. A coroner ruled her death an accident, saying she died of acute renal failure due to dehydration.

Whether it was Belich's routine to work out and then sit in the sauna, I don't know. But it is the routine of that 24 Hour Fitness location for employees to do hourly "team cleans" of the club, according to a statement that the club's manager gave police investigators, as reported on FOX 31. The TV station recently brought the death to light in a Problem Solvers investigation.

Unfortunately, the manager told investigators, "The closing employee did not make sure everyone exited the club that night." Belich died on a Wednesday, and this club closes Wednesday evenings, according to the report.

Routines. They can become so, well, routine. You know your closing routine. Close out the register at the front desk and/or the pro shop, turn off lights and computers, put away weights and mats that have been left out and, among many other things, check all areas of the club to ensure no one is left inside. That includes the steam room.

But after days, months, years of checking and finding no one lurking inside or no one injured and unable to call for help, how many of you or your staff members begin to feel that this walk through seems unnecessary? What are the chances that something bad will happen? Very small, but for 24 Hour Fitness, one chance too many.

Unfortunately, we could say two chances too many. A 24 Hour Fitness club in West Hollywood, California, had a similar incident in June when a 60-year-old man was found dead in its sauna. The club had closed that evening at midnight. A member of the cleaning crew found the lifeless man an hour later.

I don't mean to pick on 24 Hour Fitness. (Full disclosure: I'm a member of a 24 Hour Fitness.) The company has a lot of clubs, so the probability of this happening at one of its clubs may be greater due to its size. Don't kid yourself that something like this could never happen at your club. These tragedies could occur at any club. One lesson we should learn from the death of these two people is the importance of routine checks. You must keep emphasizing that to your staff. Otherwise, the consequence could be a valued member losing his or her life.

Another consequence? The family of Belich has retained a lawyer and is considering a lawsuit against 24 Hour Fitness, according to the Fox 31 report. Keep that in mind as you do your routine checks today. 

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