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The Best Health Club Protection Is Proactive

There are several steps you can take to help optimize safety and reduce liability and risk.

During the past year, safety has taken center stage in club operations. Members need to know that your facility is geared to their security and well-being. Done right, that level of care offers maximum protection for your business as well.

Certainly, the upgraded cleaning and social distancing protocols many clubs are putting in place actively show members their safety is a priority. However, there are ways to go deeper and to build a culture around member safety.

To that end, here are several best practices you can consider implementing that can help reduce risk for your members and your club.

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Reducing Risk Starts with Signage

“Clubs are becoming increasingly aware of the need to provide notice of potential hazards by posting signage to enhance customer awareness,” notes Michael Swain, senior risk solution specialist at Markel Specialty. “While some of this may be handwritten or computer-generated, it is important that owners understand the standards outlined by ASTM International’s F1749, the standard specification for fitness equipment and fitness facility safety signage and labels when posting signage.”

Size and color are two of the core issues related to signage best practices. For size, you should display signs so they are clearly visible and legible, featuring a recommended font size of 72 points or larger.

In terms of color, yellow or orange signs with black lettering are considered universal when advising people of potential hazards. Red is a color that people associate with stopping. Don’t post signs on regular white paper, as they can easily be confused with memos and other notices. Shapes also help convey your message. For example, use a red, octagon-shaped sign when you want people to stop. Triangular or diamond-shaped signs with yellow or orange lettering work best as warnings.

Swain suggests that you contact your local sign shop to customize signs to meet your gym’s specific needs.

Keeping a Lid on Liability

Perhaps the best protection is being proactive by taking steps to help prevent safety-related problems before they occur. With that in mind, Swain says there are a range of best practices you can employ to help prevent slip, trip, and fall accidents.

“Keep circulation areas free of tripping hazards,” he suggests. “Advise staff and members to keep equipment cords, weights, other loose gym equipment, bags, clothing, and other personal equipment out of circulation areas. Keep children and pets out of that area as well. Post signage telling members to be on the lookout for children or pets that may be present.”

Vigilance is, of course, critical. Inspect all public areas, including bathrooms and locker rooms, frequently. Remove potential tripping hazards immediately. Maintain a written log of your activities to help establish consistency.

Keep people out of restricted areas, restrict access to hazardous areas, and post a notice indicating those areas are off-limits.

On wet days, use absorbent mats. Place mats at all entryways and ensure that they have slip-resistant backings and provide adequate coverage. Change out dirty or saturated mats for clean ones and replace mats that have curled up at the edges. Post “wet floor” signs when necessary.

Walkways, hallways, and stairways should be well lit and clearly illuminated at all times. Properly maintain external walkways. Remove snow and ice from walkways and apply ice melt in areas that might refreeze. Repair holes in the parking lot area and remove obvious tripping hazards. Paint handicapped ramps with yellow, non-skid warning paint to increase visibility.

“Finally, check your leasing agreement,” Swain says. “If you’re not required to maintain your leased premises, be persistent about ensuring that your landlord performs necessary repairs. Document your conversations and send written correspondence confirming them. If the landlord is unwilling to work with you, consider speaking with an attorney to discuss what options you may have.”

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Get It in Writing

One way to protect your club is through the use of a carefully constructed, voluntarily signed waiver.

“Waivers can be effective business tools if used in the proper context, but they require careful planning and implementation in consultation with a private attorney,” Swain says. “Failure to do so may result in a document that does not provide an effective defense.”

In terms of liability, there are two key areas that a waiver should address. The first is a disclosure of the particular risks being accepted and a clear description of the potential harm that could result from the activity. The waiver should also make it clear to the member that they are assuming certain risks by signing the waiver and that their acceptance of the waiver is completely voluntary.

In "Is Your Gym’s Waiver Unnecessary? It Should Be," Matt O’Malley, former public policy assistant for IHRSA, outlines a series of points designed to help create a solid waiver, such as using clear, easy-to-understand language and requiring that members sign a statement acknowledging that they have read, understood, and had an opportunity to ask questions about the waiver.

“Constructing a waiver is a complex legal process that should be done in consultation with an attorney,” Swain says. “Review any waiver you use currently with legal counsel for the state in which it applies.”

Optimizing Your Protection

Among the best shields you have at your disposal is “risk transfer” through an insurance policy that can provide you appropriate insurance protection based on your particular needs.

“It is important that a club review its current insurance policy with a properly licensed insurance representative annually to ensure that it has the appropriate insurance protection in place to cover a loss,” says Reece Adams, director, underwriting & production at Markel Specialty. “Additionally, completing an annual safety evaluation—or consultation with an insurance company loss control department—can help a club identify potential risk management-related issues that need to be addressed so that it can optimize its protection.”

Markel Specialty serves small- to medium-size club operators with special coverage needs and landlord requirements. The company offers flexible coverages and limits to meet these individual needs. Samples of its specialty coverages include coverage for damages to the premises rented by you, tenant’s building glass, employee theft, and non-flood-related sewer back-up.

“Along with many other coverages, we can insure your business property—including machines, weights, mats, front-desk equipment, etc.—your premises liability, and we automatically include professional liability for your employees and trainers,” adds Adams. “In certain states, we can also offer workers compensation insurance in addition to the commercial property and liability policy. Health clubs are unique, and it is important to find insurance that is designed specifically for yours.”

To learn more about Markel Specialty’s health club coverages, visit the Markel Insurance website and get a free, no-obligation quote.

This document is intended for general information purposes only, and should not be construed as advice or opinions on any specific facts or circumstances. The content of this document is made available on an “as is” basis, without warranty of any kind. This document can’t be assumed to contain every acceptable safety and compliance procedures or that additional procedures might not be appropriate under the circumstances. Markel does not guarantee that this information is or can be relied on for compliance with any law or regulation, assurance against preventable losses, or freedom from legal liability. This publication is not intended to be legal, underwriting, or any other type of professional advice. Persons requiring advice should consult an independent adviser. Markel does not guarantee any particular outcome and makes no commitment to update any information herein, or remove any items that are no longer accurate or complete. Furthermore, Markel does not assume any liability to any person or organization for loss of damage caused by or resulting from any reliance placed on that content.

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Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to IHRSA.org.