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Blog: Can Sports Kill You?

I have practiced sports law for almost 20 years. I thought I had seen it all, but that was until I was asked by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help chair a task force designed to reduce workplace injuries NAICS Sector 71, which includes Arts, Entertainment and Recreation. Nestled within this large sector are people who work in all professional sports and sports facilities. In total, there are 1,928,740 employees in the sector, including (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) 12,450 athletes, 36,710 coaches and scouts, 29,900 life guards and ski patrollers, 42,290 usher/ticket takers, 158,560 fitness and aerobic instructors, 25,640 recreation workers, and so on.

I thought I worked in a relatively safe industry. Boy, was I wrong. In 2008, there were a total of 229 workplace-related deaths in Sector 71. Forty of those deaths were in the category of performing arts/spectator sports. While you might assume that younger, inexperienced workers would make more mistakes and would be more likely to die as a result of them, the 45-54 and 55-64 age ranges had the most and second-most deaths.

People die in various ways, but the most common cause of death is transportation-related accidents. Examples include: a boss sending a worker on an errand and they get into an accident; a broadcast truck gets in an accident on the way to broadcast a game; a truck driver transporting sporting goods gets into an accident. A total of 81 deaths in our sector were attributable to transportation in 2008.

While being struck by or against an object would seem to be a frequent cause of death, it is not the second most common cause of death in our sector. That title would go to workplace violence and assaults. In the performing arts/spectator sports area, there were 14 assaults leading to deaths in 2008. Drowning was the cause of six deaths in the amusement/gambling area.

Some managers might think that these deaths only happen to the grunt workers. In the Arts, Entertainment and Recreation category, there were eight managers who passed away in 2008. The most common occupation? Those working in media (25 deaths in 2008). These individuals might have included reporters traveling to cover a story. There also were 20 grounds maintenance staffers who died.

The real danger is in injuries suffered on the job; injuries in the sports industry occurred at a much more frequent rate in 2008 than private industry as a whole (113.3 injuries per 1,000 workers). Spectator sports employes' incident rate was 163.4, more than 44 percent higher than the norm, the golf facilities rate was high (138.2), and the rate for skiing facilities was an astronomical 320.7, 183 percent higher than the norm.

The most common injuries are often strains or sprains. However, some locations have much higher injury rates based on the type of job. Golf courses, for example, had 95 percent more cuts, 195.5 percent more machine-related injuries and 58.3 percent more injuries associated with chemical and hazardous material exposure. Skiing facility workers suffered many sprains and strains (257.3 percent higher than private industry in general) and fractures (341.5 percent higher).

But one of the shocking figures was the number of injuries associated with violence. The sports industry had a rate 216.6 percent higher in 2008 than in private industry. That number was not a fluke, and the numbers for the past several years have shown a steady growth in violence-related injuries.

These figures show the industry needs to do more to protect its employees. What can a sports industry professional do?

1) Be vigilant and look for hazards in the workplace

2) Take workplace violence seriously, take steps to minimize the potential, and train employees how to respond in violent or potentially violent situations

3) Provide employees with appropriate training so they know how to use their equipment

4) Track workplace injuries and return-to-work programs

5) Bring in a workplace hygienist to help evaluate the workplace for safety issues

To this list, I'd add that a good place to start is the National Occupational Research Agenda, sponsored by the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The group tracks industry injuries and provides information through symposia and publications. The group's goal is to reduce arts, sports and recreation employees' injury rates by 30 percent.

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