Unstaffed Facility Access – probably the wrong answer


Some YMCAs have raised the possibility of allowing access to certain members when no staff is present, either outside of normal business hours in their existing facility or at a newly acquired separate location. Such access is often termed 24/7 because the specified individuals can use the facility at any time they choose, day or night. Whether the question is motivated by a desire to expand membership, extend service hours, or fulfill a grant or business condition, the evaluation should be thorough and exhaustive. The precedents set and the resulting consequences may seriously alter some individual lives and the future of the association.

Allowing access to an unstaffed facility increases risk in many ways. Without staff to guide and support, potential is increased and response is delayed for:

  • injury to or death of members,
  • misuse or uneducated use of equipment,
  • acts of inappropriate behavior,
  • threats to personal security,
  • theft or acts of vandalism, etc.

The paragraphs below discuss some of these inherent risks.

Swimming Pools and Spas

Swimming pools and spas present the most obvious risk potential. An accessible unguarded swimming pool is unconscionable. A spa that is not frequently checked is not much better – and that is during regular staffed hours. Both are totally unacceptable in an unstaffed environment. If a pool or spa is present in the facility all access should be securely locked and alarms should be seriously considered.

Locker rooms, saunas, and steam rooms

Locker rooms, saunas, and steam rooms are the site of numerous injuries – often serious falls. Camera monitoring cannot be done because of environments inconducive to cameras or personal privacy laws, so an injury there may go unobserved and unaddressed. Too often these areas are also the sites of inappropriate sexual activities, even when buildings are staffed and full of people. Removing those constraints may provide opportunity for consensual or nonconsensual sexual activity. Increasing the potential for either is indefensible both ethically and legally.

Fitness equipment and free weight

Fitness equipment and free weight usage pose a very real injury potential, especially to a neophyte. This fact is reflected in current YMCA best practices – staffing fitness areas whenever they are open. Unstaffed access clearly falls well short of that recognized best-practice standard.

Unauthorized access

Card-readers and cameras are incapable of restricting accompanying friends, posers who bluff their way in with authorized users, solitary individuals, or authorized members who are currently inappropriate for whatever reason. A lone person in the building (a very real possibility) increases every risk potential except abuse.

Theft and vandalism potential

Theft and vandalism potential increase when there is no staff presence. The presence of cameras may discourage criminal behavior but it is neither as effective as live bodies nor can it directly confront or interfere with such actions. Protection for interior doors is usually minimal – with the exception of sensitive areas, security is often provided by spring-in-knob or similar locks instead of dead bolts. Such locks are easily defeated, especially given adequate time without supervision, thus providing access to much of the facility. Proving the identity of a thief or vandal might be difficult unless a single user entered the building during the time when the crime could have been committed.

Should any incident or injury occur

Should any incident or injury occur in a non-staffed environment, help is not only unavailable in the immediate area – it is unavailable anywhere in the building. It is possible that no other users are present. Will the incident happen in view of a camera? Will the monitoring entity notice in a timely fashion? Will help arrive in time? There are no such assurances. Using emergency call buttons either positioned throughout the facility or provided to the users may help, but while they can summon assistance, they are not as timely or as efficient as on-site staff and such substitution represents a reduced standard of care.

Protecting the association

Protecting the association is always a concern. A clear, strong waiver and/or assumption of risk agreement should be mandatory for each user. However, since some typical controls (e.g., staff presence) are missing, legal action should be anticipated in the event of injury or incident.

No matter what perceived advantages extended operating hours offer, the only wise way to expand facility access is to provide staff during the extended hours – at least two at all times (preferably of opposite gender), increased during any anticipated surges. High-risk areas like pools, spas, saunas, steam rooms, locker rooms, and possibly others should be closed and securely locked (unless they are guarded / staffed). Can a case ever be made for unstaffed access? Possibly, given the right circumstance or facility, but in general such action is definitely imprudent.

Please call us at 800-463-8546 to discuss this or any other risk management safety tip, or visit our web site at www.redwoodsgroup.com to learn more about YMCA risk management issues.


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