Liabilities of Fitness

How to plan for any type of emergency in your facility.

SMART MANAGERS think not only of the latest and greatest in fitness programming and equipment, but also about the liability associated with their business. While bells and whistles will get people into the facility for a tour, and well-staffed and well-run programs will keep them there, paying special attention to members' safety will keep them happy, even if they don't know it.

When you think about liability, you may think about electrical cords crossing people's paths or first responder training. While these issues are important, you also need to think more broadly. What will you do, for instance, if your facility catches fire? How will you evacuate? How will you ensure everyone is out of the building? What will you do if your city comes under a biological attack? What will you do if members' files are compromised and personal information is stolen and sold? There are a lot of concerns to consider when running a business. Hopefully, most -- if not all -- of things you plan for will never happen. That being said, you do need a well-thought-out plan, and you need to practice it with your staff.

Safety steps

"If you don't have a plan, then any equipment you have for use in an emergency will be ineffective," says Lisa Marchiani of L&T Health and Fitness (, a fitness management company based in Falls Church, Va. Marchiani lists having a well-thought-out plan as the No. 1 most important thing a fitness center can have to improve member and staff safety, and to reduce liability. Marchiani suggests planning for every conceivable outcome -- evacuations, health emergencies, etc. -- and to test those plans at least quarterly, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

L&T Health and Fitness has gone one step further, and incorporated drills or training into their sites' monthly staff trainings. Whether they review emergency procedures or update Material Safety Data Sheets, staff members are constantly reminded of what is at stake for their members and themselves. This repetition is a good thing. After all, says Marchiani, "How many people can recite what to do in an emergency on an airplane, but can't tell you the emergency procedures in their own place of business?" Procedures need to be ingrained, not just memorized.

The second most important thing Marchiani recommends is to have the tools needed for use with these plans. These tools include having an evacuation map posted on all doors, first aid kits and AEDs accessible to staff and, if need be, members. "Signage is crucial," says Marchiani. That communication can make the difference between life and death. Marchiani also suggests putting this necessary information into new member packets and periodically adding them to newsletters. "People assume that you have a plan, or that you have an AED, and are reassured by that," she explains. "But, you should also communicate what you don't have. If your facility does not have an AED, people need to know that in an emergency, the EMTs must be called."

David Herbert's article in the September 1999 issue of Fitness Management entitled "New Lawsuit Attacks Club's Emergency Response" gives managers some additional items to consider. [To read the article go to, and click on library of articles and then liability.] Will your staff be able to respond properly in an emergency?

Safety resources

When planning for your medical emergency procedures and for what equipment your fitness center will have for those emergencies, use the guidelines published by industry professionals. ACSM ( has reports and guidelines for the fitness professional's use. In a court of law, use of these guidelines, as they are applicable to your facility, is crucial. It goes without saying that you should always check for updates to these guidelines to ensure your facility is operating on the cutting edge of safety.

Plan for any emergency

Fitness centers need to not only plan for a medical emergency, but other types of emergencies, as well. Whether fires, floods or a biological attack, members will look to you to get them either safely out of the building or through a major catastrophic event. Lessons from 9-11 and the Katrina floods have taught us only too well the importance of preparation. Who knows what your city's emergency might be? Or when? No one -- and that is the point.

In the event of an evacuation, plan for not only how your staff will ensure all members are out of the building, but where they will meet -- for instance, in the event of a fire. Perhaps they should meet in a building across the street or in your parking lot. Walk through this plan with your staff time and time again. Reiterate to your members what the plan is so they, too, will have it in their minds. If you aren't sure of the best course of action, call the fire department and ask them to walk through your facility with you and work out a plan together. When you have your final plan in place, communicate it with your local authorities so they will know what to expect from you. The more communication, the better.

What if your area comes under a biological attack? Will you be ready? Your staff and members must stay in the building and the building must be sealed. What supplies will you need? For how many days will you need them? Fortunately, planning for this kind of attack has been made easier by the Red Cross and the Department of Homeland Security ( and -- you'll need more than just duct tape and plastic sheeting.

In the "Get Prepared" section of the Red Cross website, you'll find planning checklists for a variety of emergencies, from blackouts to hurricanes to terrorism. The site also describes what to expect for each type of emergency, from types of damage to local law enforcement and media. An important suggestion is to have local school phone numbers easily accessible so that you can communicate with the schools, and then tell the parents what is happening with their child.

In the "Ready Business" section of the Department of Homeland Security webpage, you'll find useful information on a variety of security topics including insurance, building air protection systems, and even how to communicate and practice for emergencies with your employees. Can you secure your outdoor airtakes in an emergency? Do you even know where they are? It's an important consideration, because an attack could occur when your maintenance people are not on shift. That knowledge could save lives.

It goes without saying that planning for emergencies is crucial to making it through one safely. These resources, as well as your local government, can help. You'll also find insight as to how one fitness center dealt with a disaster in Marty Tutley's account of how he, his staff and his members coped in the aftermath of a devastating fire in his article "Is Your Club Prepared for a Disaster?" in Fitness Management's September 2002 issue [also at in the library of articles' liability section].

Cyber security

Another important topic in member safety is identity theft. Businesses everywhere are rethinking the kind of information they collect from their customers, and changing their paperwork and policies to only collect what is absolutely necessary, with a particular emphasis on social security numbers.

Granted, the personal information needed to steal someone's identity is in many places, but if the theft of one of your member's identity can be traced back to your fitness center's negligence (in how personal information was stored or accessed), your facility can be held liable. Whether it was an employee who stole information from a filing cabinet or a hacker who broke into your unprotected computer system, the risks are great, and taking the necessary precautions are crucial. You'll find a great resource on the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association's website ( on the prevention of identity theft from a business perspective. Some suggested steps are things you are hopefully taking already, like locking up member and employee files, limiting access to those files, and shredding personal and financial documents you intend to get rid of. Other precautions you may not have thought of include requiring a confidentiality agreement of employees, and including your facility's privacy policy on literature and websites. Taking simple steps can make a huge difference for your fitness center and your members.

If it seems that there are more things for business owners and managers to be aware of and plan for, you're right. The good thing is, with all this planning and practicing, your business will be safe, secure and legally at ease. Be ready for any conceivable situation by expecting the worst and hoping for the best! FM
Herbert, D. New lawsuit attacks club's emergency response. Fitness Management 15(19): 58, September 1999.
Tutley, M. Is your club prepared for a disaster? Fitness Management 18(10): 48, September 2002.
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