When it comes to risk mitigation for parks and recreation department employees and patrons, managers can never be too careful.
Ron Pearson with Meadowbrook Insurance Group knows this firsthand. Meadowbrook is an Ann Arbor-based service provider for the Michigan Municipal League Liability and Property Pool and the Michigan Municipal League Workers’ Compensation Fund. The pool and the fund are the insurer, or risk taker. Meadowbrook provides loss control, claim handling, underwriting and marketing services to both programs. Pearson has been with Meadowbrook for 18 years as part of a dedicated team working solely on the MML’s insurance programs.
According to Pearson, following best practices regarding risk mitigation steps is the best course of action. However, each situation will warrant a unique response, “based on the specific recreational activities offered or hosted at a given park, or area within a park.” Generally speaking, frequent documented inspections are always a good idea.
“These inspections are to make sure that trails, paths or sidewalks are clear of tripping hazards,” he said. “(They ensure) that equipment is in good condition and maintained following manufacturer recommendations and recognized standards.”
Other necessary actions, according to Pearson, include providing that fall zone attenuation materials are adequate under or around equipment, and are appropriate for the height of the equipment. It’s recommended that zones for differing activities have appropriate separation. Signage warning users of known hazards should be prominently posted. Lastly, follow recognized standards on installation of new equipment, Pearson said.
Steve Kleinman of the Park District Risk Management Agency shares a similar opinion. PDRMA is an intergovernmental risk pool offering self-insured property/casualty and health coverage to park districts, special recreation associations and forest preserve/ conservation districts throughout Illinois. He serves as general counsel and has been with PDRMA since 1992. He’s responsible for legal defense functions of the agency and serves as a general legal resource to PDRMA staff and their 160 members — providing legal counsel on risk management, employment practices liability, workers’ compensation, general liability and civil rights.
Parks and recreation facilities, he said, by their very nature are laden with risk. In his words, “In today’s highly litigious ‘no fee if no recovery’ society, the greatest threat is diverting limited public funds and staffing resources from risk management to defending frivolous litigation arising out the inherent risks of recreation. This threat is unabatingly placing park and recreation agencies between the proverbial rock and a hard place.”
That’s because facilities are often already struggling with allocating their limited financial and staffing resources. Defending against claims and lawsuits arising out of the use (and misuse) of their respective facilities and programs only makes them more overextended, Kleinman added.
One way to minimize risk and maximize safety is by fostering a culture of safety and wellness. That includes but is not limited to minding legal considerations.
“This commitment is demonstrated through identifying, monitoring and complying with the ever-increasing local, state and federal laws, codes, rules and regulations enacted for the safety of the public and employees and applicable to their respective operations, services, facilities and programs,” he said.
Best practices further include a commitment to allocating both staffing and financial resources to risk management and safety. This can be a tall order at times and therefore calls for prioritization. Recreation providers should focus and target their efforts on employee training and education, adopting a scheduled inspection and maintenance program, and compliance with manufacturer and industry guidelines. It’s also necessary “to adopt prudent rules and regulations for the use of public property and programs, and communicating and reinforcing important safety information through brochures, signage, websites and social media,” he said.
Kleinman recommends agencies look to the past as an indication of the likelihood and nature of future claims. This approach calls for “identifying and prioritizing the particular risks of the individual agency, which includes a statistical analysis of the types, frequency, location and severity of past losses and injuries.”
Last, Kleinman reminds readers that risk mitigation is more of an art than a science. And there are really no hard and fast rules to follow. “(T)here is no one-size-fits-all approach or precise formula,” he said. “Rather, it’s a common commitment to taking a measured, balanced, genuine and well-informed approach to safety and wellness — targeting the specific needs of the communitybbeing served.”
Speaking of information, there are a few resources available that managers might lean on for further reference. Pearson recommends the National Recreation and Parks Association. In addition to a wealth of useful information on their website, they offer certification programs for Park and Recreation directors. Additionally, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission publishes many voluntary standards related to parks and recreational activities. Primary among them is their Public Playground Safety Handbook. The websites are nrpa.org and cpsc.gov, respectively.