When Your Health Club Goes the Wrong Kind of Viral

Today’s exercise trends are creating more opportunities for the spread of harmful germs and viruses. That could be a liability nightmare. Here’s what to do.

New exercise trends are important to the success of health clubs, and perhaps the best example is group X. Vibrant and social, group X and small group training (SGT) have become important for retention and increasing non-dues revenue, but they don’t come without complications. And one problem you likely didn’t anticipate is the increased spread of germs and viruses in your club.

Think about it: Usually when members are done using cardio machines, resistance machines, or free weights and benches, they wipe down the equipment with towels or disinfectant wipes. Maybe you even have cleaning staff who is diligent and makes sure equipment is as sanitized as possible.

Now think about SGT classes. These high-intensity sessions are usually divided up into modules, where small groups take turns using equipment, then immediately move on to the next exercise modality. They have to keep their heart rate elevated and their feet moving. They don’t have time to wipe equipment clean.

It’s unavoidable. These group exercisers are sharing more than a thrilling workout experience. They’re sharing their germs as well.

It’s an ongoing issue for high-traffic facilities. No matter how fastidious your cleaning regimen is, you can’t completely eliminate the problem of harmful microbes spreading in your club. And, according to research, it’s potentially serious.

“No matter how fastidious your cleaning regimen is, you can’t completely eliminate the problem of harmful microbes spreading in your club.”

Pathogens May Be in Your Club

The presence of bacteria is, in itself, not a cause for alarm. In the new book Never Home Alone, Rob Dunn, a professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, writes about the vast amounts of microbes and millipedes that occupy a typical living environment.

“Every surface; every bit of air; every bit of water in your home is alive,” says Dunn. “The average house has thousands of species.”

Your first response may be, “Ew,” especially when Dunn goes into detail about a typical showerhead. But that’s life on earth; it’s everywhere. You may have mites cohabitating in your hair follicles, even your eyelashes and eyebrows, as you go about your day. Out of sight is out of mind.

These bacteria, for the most part, aren’t harmful. And, in fact, many bacteria are beneficial. What’s dangerous are “pathogens.” Pathogens are a bacterium, virus, or other microorganism that can cause disease.

These contagions are more than likely in your health club. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that there are at least 25 different bacteria, including many pathogens, hiding out in health clubs. In the study: “Diversity of Bacterial Communities of Fitness Center Surfaces in a U.S. Metropolitan Area,” researchers analyzed “exercise instruments, floor mats, handrails, etc.” and found the presence of pathogenic or potential pathogenic bacteria genera, including salmonella, with Staphylococcus the most prevalent pathogen in clubs.

You may know that strain by its more common term: staph infection.

The researchers state the liability plainly: “Presence of viable forms of these pathogens elevates risk of exposure of any susceptible individuals.” We’re not just talking about athlete’s foot and fungal infections. These are potentially serious diseases.

Minimizing Liability Risks

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It’s impossible to completely reduce the risk of pathogens making other members ill, but as with other more common types of injuries, you have to reduce your liability as best you can.

IHRSA policy experts are here to help you understand your risks and exposures. As one recent IHRSA article says: “Clubs are liable for everyone. Anyone who enters your facility presents a liability risk. Even those injured by another member could result in legal liabilities.”

To help guide you in understanding your liability risks, IHRSA’s public policy team has created IHRSA's Injury Liability briefing paper. In it, Helen Durkin, JD, executive vice president of public policy at IHRSA, takes you through the issues club owners need to know.

In an IHRSA briefing paper, Durkin lists the four general categories where liability issues arise:

  1. Maintaining safe conditions in all areas that constitute the “premises.” The premises include areas such as parking lots, locker rooms, courts, exercise areas, and pool areas;
  2. Providing exercise programs that are appropriate for members’ physical conditions and abilities;
  3. Instructing and supervising members during exercise sessions; and
  4. Responding appropriately to accidents and medical emergencies.

These issues can be extremely complicated for the layman. There are waivers and releases to keep track of, as well as different regulations for each state. But you have to stay on top of it.

Injuries are going to happen and pathogens are going to find their way into your club. To help reduce your liability from members becoming ill from exposure to germs, you may want to consider securing insurance protection from pathogenic microorganisms. Lucky for club owners, these insurance products are available.

Obtaining Coverage for ‘Transmissible Pathogens’

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Full service clubs need all the help they can get when it comes to protection from legal liability. The insurance professionals to turn to are those who have specialized expertise in the health club sector. Perhaps the most experienced in this regard is K&K Insurance.

K&K Insurance has worked in the sports, leisure, and entertainment market for more than 65 years in the U.S. and Canada. They became experts in the health club category more than 25 years ago, and have successfully insured clubs of all types and sizes since then. And when it comes to members spreading potentially dangerous bacteria, they have you covered. Literally.

K&K’s general liability plans for full service clubs includes “transmissible pathogens” coverage as part of their standard policy. This includes protection from claims associated with pathogens that cause hepatitis, salmonella, E. coli, and other conditions.

Experts at K&K caution that this coverage isn’t standard for smaller studio clubs, but for most multipurpose facilities, it’s part of the package. Check your policy now—you may not be covered.

As a club owner, you don’t need another liability headache. You have enough to worry about without being concerned with the proliferation of germs and bacteria from new group exercise trends. With headlines multiplying about measles outbreaks and other disease risks, you need to be protected.

To learn more about K&K Insurance’s pathogen coverage and their products for health clubs, visit K&K's website.

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Jim Schmaltz

Jim Schmaltz is a contributor to IHRSA.org