Sports field managers across all levels of play frequently state that safety — for the athletes and all who visit their facilities — is their top consideration. But this must be much more than just a statement, it must be supported by adequate and appropriate, well-documented, action. Unfortunately, in today’s litigious environment, liability issues have become increasingly important to sports facilities from professional stadiums to public and private venues for youth and adult amateur play. Field conditions are always subject to scrutiny — allocation of resources is necessary to accomplish all this.
- Be aware of potential liability issues. Ignorance is not an excuse that can be successfully defended in court.
Liability experts point to three main areas of potential litigation involving sports fields.
- The first is related to the initial design and the field construction or installation and any subsequent renovations. Ideally, the sports field manager will have input in the decisions made leading up to and during such projects to help steer the selection of qualified manufacturers, suppliers and contractors with sports-field-specific expertise. In addition, the sports field manager can help insure the testing of materials and monitoring of processes during all phases of the field construction, installation or renovation.
- The second area centers on field use that is different from that for which the field was designed. That could be rugby on a football field, lacrosse on a soccer field, or concerts or fundraising events on any field. The sports field manager can provide valuable input in these situations as well, pointing to standards by the various governing bodies of the sports involved and stressing field safety issues.
- The third area addresses the meat of sports field management — the maintenance issues and field conditions. Failure to inspect, identify potential problems, and rectify them, is most frequently cited. And, even if those steps are done properly, failure to document that action can result in losing the litigation battle.
- The experts stress these phrases related to field safety: adequate and appropriate, reasonable and proper, and foreseeable and fixable. While there may not be published industry-wide standards for all aspects of sports fields, there are generally accepted reasonable expectations that apply.
- Athletes anticipate a level playing field free of debris, holes, divots, depressions, ridges, lips and other potential safety hazards, including loose seams, worn patches or uneven infill on synthetic fields.
- Potential liability extends beyond the playing surface to the equipment required for the specific sport — including goals, goal posts and backstops — transition and out-of-bounds areas, fencing, lighting, player areas — such as dugouts and locker rooms, bleachers and other public viewing areas, concession and restroom facilities, walkways and parking lots.
- When an area of potential liability is widely publicized, those directly involved with a similar situation may be held liable whether they have been directly notified or not. Serious injury from unanchored soccer goals is frequently used as an example of such an issue.
- The challenge is consistently providing fields that meet or exceed safety expectations and documenting that such action has occurred.
USE AVAILABLE RESOURCES
SAFE & STMA
- The Foundation for Safer Athletic Fields for Everyone (SAFE) in partnership with the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) has developed “Sports and Recreation Fields — Safety First,” a video outreach program intended to educate sports field managers and playing field users on some of the basics of what makes an athletic field safe and playable.
- The on-camera spokesman for these videos is SFM’s featured columnist, Ross Kurcab, CSFM. As Ross states in the introduction to each video, “It is our sincere hope that after watching you will be armed with what you need to do a basic field evaluation before you or your team steps on the field.”
- The videos are free to everyone: Facilities, Natural Grass, Synthetic Turf and Baseball and Softball, which covers the skinned area, pitching mound/circle, home plate and other aspects unique to those sports. Each video starts with the same first step: walk around and visually scan the playing field and surrounding areas and then digs into the basics to consider in each category.
- These basics are combined in another format, field safety checklists specific to football/soccer and baseball/softball. (These are also free to everyone.) Each document starts with this statement, “Prior to practice or a game, assess the following field characteristics and make the necessary corrections to the statements marked, ‘No/Needs Attn’ before allowing players on the field.
INSURANCE-RELATED SAFETY PROGRAMS
- Sometimes, the use of specific forms is mandated by a sports association in conjunction with their insurance program. That’s the case with the American Softball Association (ASA/USA Softball). Their reasoning for this is fully explained on their website and a copy of the ASA/USA Softball Field Safety Checklist can be viewed there.
- Whether you adopt one of these programs, or use them as guidelines to develop a program specific to your facility and its needs, that same basic format should be applied to daily, weekly and seasonal inspections to further document consistency.
- The sports field manager’s area of responsibility will vary according to the entity, ranging from an individual facility, to public or private school or university system, or city, county, state or national recreational site. The field safety program and checklist documentation need to be coordinated throughout the entity so that all data is accessible, as well as retained and available for periodic review and for use in defense, if necessary.
- Budget cuts can impact the safety program. Consistent inspection and documentation also can be a proactive step demonstrating that resources have been allocated effectively despite budget cuts, thus supporting the definition of “adequate and appropriate,” should litigation occur.
STAFF SAFETY TRAINING
- The qualifications of the sports field manager and maintenance staff often become a consideration during a liability situation, with the terms “adequate and appropriate” tied to training and experience.
- Safety training needs to be conducted in all areas of field care, including equipment operation and, if applicable, the use and handling of control products. The type of training, name of the instructor, time and date of the training and names of those attending should all be recorded. Attendees will need to sign that they participated in the training and that they understand the material that was presented. All of this documentation needs to be kept on file.
- In addition, the safety of staff members needs to be established and documented. This includes documenting that proper personal safety equipment and supplies for all tasks, and for working in less than ideal weather conditions, are available and their usage is enforced.
EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT PLANS
- Work with facility owners and all necessary entities to establish an emergency action plan for when no field users are present and when field users and spectators are present. Make sure all personnel are familiar with these plans and understand their responsibilities for reporting accidents/other emergencies and for taking action during an emergency situation.
- Post signs in appropriate places so players, officials, fans and other visitors are not only aware of facility and field use rules and regulations, but also of emergency procedures that could affect them.
- Liability also may result from the actions of players, coaches and spectators such as injuries resulting from storming a football field to tear down the goal post. Make sure crowd control is addressed within your emergency action plan.
- Train supervisors and other key employees in first aid, CPR and other life-support procedures. Make sure they understand their responsibilities during a medical emergency and when conducting rescue operations.
- Integrate the proactive approach to safety throughout your staff. Preventing an injury from occurring is far better than facing litigation over who is responsible for that injury.
- According to STMA, its Playing Conditions Index (PCI), developed to assess the playability of your fields, “is used to provide a snapshot of your fields’ playability at a specific point in time.” The continued use of the assessment tool provides invaluable information to the sports turf manager and can help guide field management practices and assist with communication to user groups. It can also help to substantiate the need for more resources.
- The package contains a Media Advisory Bulletin, with instructions to help convey information on field conditions and its effect on athlete performance to the facility’s media relations department and to other sports information professionals on game days.
- The STMA PCI is available to STMA members who can download and print it in its usable format. Used consistently, the STMA PCI fulfills the goals stated above, augmenting and reinforcing the documentation of the field safety checklists.