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Be a good sport about safe recreation

When offering extreme sports activities, church leaders must take precautions to ensure the safety of congregants.

By Eric Spacek

Church is no longer just a place to gather and worship. It seems an increasing number of churches are finding new ways to involve young adults, teens and children in the church community. To accomplish this, some churches are sponsoring “extreme” sports activities by taking church groups to facilities that offer inline skating, BMX biking, skateboarding, rock climbing, paintball and more.

Although extreme sports can be fun, they also present the very real possibility of injury to those who participate. Some of these common injuries include sprains, fractures, cuts and bruising, but more serious head and neck injuries also can result. For example, a 12-year-old girl who was part of a church snowmobiling outing fractured her spine and became paralyzed when the snowmobile she was on struck a tree. Given these risks, if a church does decide to become involved in an extreme sporting activity, it is vitally important to take precautions to provide the safest possible environment for those participating.

Learn the risks of the sport

The first step in the process is to determine whether the activity is appropriate for the church group given the nature of the activity and the age of the expected participants. Learn all the particulars of the activity and the risks associated with it. Contact other churches that have undertaken the activity for their experience and guidance. Check with your insurance agent or broker to determine if the church’s insurance policy will cover such an activity. And, determine whether the benefits derived from engaging in the activity outweigh the risk the church undertakes as stewards of the people under its care. Discuss the idea with the church board in order to give them an opportunity to offer their input and approval.

Assuming the idea is approved by the church board, the next step is to research the facilities that offer the activity. Generally speaking, it is better for a church to leave actual operation of the activity to businesses trained and experienced in it, rather than attempting to host the activity itself.

In selecting the recreational facility, check credentials and references, particularly from other churches. Find out how long they have been in business and learn as much as you can about their safety record and emergency plans. Ask about the training and experience of their staff, the level of training and supervision they provide to participants, the age and suitability of their equipment, and the use of protective devices and gear.

Visit the facility for first-hand observation of their operations. Ask about any certification or accreditation that they may hold and see that they follow any existing standards (such as ASTM standards) that might apply to the activity. Make sure the facility is adequately insured with liability insurance limits at least equal to the church’s own policy. Request that the church be added as an additional insured on the facility’s insurance policies, then follow up to obtain a certificate of insurance from the facility, if possible. Consider having a written agreement between the church and the facility in which the latter agrees to indemnify the church in the event an incident takes place at the facility. However, many organizations will not agree to this condition, but there is no harm in asking.

When participating in extreme sports, protective gear is a necessity. Injuries can be prevented if the proper gear is used. While the extent and type of protective gear varies by activity, head and eye protection is critical for most extreme sporting activities. Protective equipment for the face, arms, hands, legs, feet and torso may be needed depending on the nature of the activity.

Safety gear and training

In addition, appropriate safety harnesses may be needed for activities involving heights, such as rock climbing or rope courses. Make sure that the facility provides appropriate protective gear and trained personnel who clearly instruct participants on what and what not to do. Finally, make sure that participants are advised in advance what type of clothing and footwear should (or should not) be worn when participating in the activity so they can plan accordingly.

Churches that sponsor trips will, at a minimum, want to make sure that parents have signed appropriate permission slips and consent to emergency medical treatment forms for minor participants. Having adult participants sign a liability waiver or release form is not unreasonable in light of the risks presented. Most facilities will require participants (or their parents) to sign their own form. One option is to obtain a copy of the facility’s form in advance and simply add the church’s name to the facility’s name wherever it is mentioned in the form so that both organizations are better protected in that manner.

Accidents can happen

The church also will want to collect emergency contact information for each participant so that appropriate contact can be made in the event of an emergency. If the church is providing transportation to or from the activity, make sure to specifically include transportation within the permission, consent and release forms to protect the church in the event something happens on the way to or from the activity.

Despite the best precautions, accidents and injuries can happen in extreme sports. Make sure that the facility where the activity takes place has an emergency plan in place and has staff members who are trained in first aid on site while your church is there. It also is helpful if key leaders or volunteers in your group have first-aid training.

Before assisting someone who has been injured, make sure you are not in danger yourself. Assess the surrounding area and what has happened to make sure there is no remaining danger. If the injury involves blood or bodily fluids of any kind, put gloves on to protect yourself from hazards that could result from contact. Never move someone who appears to have a neck or back injury. Moving them could make the injury worse, so wait for emergency response personnel to arrive. Make sure to reach the individual’s emergency contact to keep them apprised of the situation. You also may want to use an incident report to document what transpired, as well as any witnesses to it.

Having members participate in recreational activities together can enhance the feeling of community within your church and can be just plain fun. Still, engaging in extreme sports comes with a lot of responsibilities and precautions, so keep the safety of your church’s members a top priority.

Eric Spacek is senior risk manager at GuideOne Insurance, West Des Moines, IA. [guideone.com]

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