From the workout floor and group exercise rooms to the showers and parking lot, no club owner can afford to overlook the myriad of places where liability lurks. Industry experts note several areas where club owners could be stepping into legal entanglements.
Though actual statistics are hard to come by, club members have the highest probability of injury in and around showers, saunas, and whirlpools, says Jennifer Urmston Lowe, national account manager for Sports and Fitness Insurance Corp., Madison, MS.
“The most frequent claims we see are slip-and-falls in wet areas,” Lowe says. “They are slick—period—so that’s an inherent risk.”
Lowe recommends placing nonslip surfaces such as rubber mats or plastic grids around these areas as well as in locker rooms. She also suggests club operators post signs that encourage appropriate footwear at all times.
Water is not the only culprit, however. Club operators should mop up sweat on workout floors and in group exercise rooms, Lowe adds, and monitor wear and tear on group ex equipment in addition to strength and cardio equipment.
Bill Coons, senior loss-control specialist for Kennesaw, GA–based insurance agency Thomco, says most of its claims come from the exercise floor—the busiest area of any club. Coons recommends leaving at least three feet from the back of the treadmill to the wall to prevent burns when falls occur.
“The treadmills are the riskiest piece for your cardio and strength equipment, because it’s a moving device,” Lowe says. “With a lack of attention, it’s still moving.”
Cristina LaMarca, an associate attorney with Kaufman Borgeest & Ryan, New York, says club operators should take broken equipment out of commission immediately. And when it comes to equipment repairs, operators should document what parts were repaired on which machines. Video evidence goes a long way in the defense of some claims, as do detailed maintenance records showing no prior complaints about the equipment in question, LaMarca says.
Unfortunately for the club owner, it’s not just moving parts that bring on the potential for injuries. When members do not re-rack free weights between sets, for example, tripping hazards increase exponentially. Coons says club staff should frequently inspect these areas, reminding members who leave free weights out to clean up after their workout.
Club-specific liabilities are also worth examining. Most of the time, Lowe says, a membership base in need of increased supervision already has it, but at for-profit health clubs, free use of the swimming pool may make signage and waivers more necessary.
In the winter, sidewalks and icy spots can be hazardous to members as they enter and leave the facility. Club operators should take care of their premises and, if needed, work with their landlords to remove snow or ice from their sidewalks and parking lots.
Unanimous among experts is the importance of new member orientation in preempting injury. Club operators should offer instruction on proper use of equipment with all renewals. If members decline, they should be required to sign a waiver, Lowe says. Waivers can vary state to state, and many states do not enforce them at all, Lowe adds.
Another state-by-state requirement is having automated external defibrillators (AEDs) inside clubs and having staff trained to use them. Even amidst all the evidence on how AEDs can help save a club member’s life, Coons says, some clubs choose not to have them—and, in doing so, may be in violation of the law.
“This can be a costly oversight if a member has a heart attack,” he says, “and it can be determined he might have been saved by early defibrillation.”
Operators also must be vigilant about issues involving members and club staff. LaMarca sees more cases involving allegations of sexual harassment and assault by trainers and club employees.
Club owners should consult with insurance brokers on proper coverage amounts, Coons says, which will vary depending on assets, club size and number of locations. These general insurance policies, however, may not protect against instances of harassment or assault. Some trainers are actually subcontractors, and they are likely not covered by insurance maintained by the club, LaMarca says.
When any changes are made to club operations, club operators should provide an updated inspection checklist to their insurance broker.
“Maybe you added new classes, resurfaced bathrooms or added another dry sauna,” Lowe says. “Don’t see it as a burden, but an opportunity to make sure you’re getting credit for any safety equipment or flooring that you might have put in.”