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Problems on ‘the surface’ can lead to major liability hazards

By Eric Spacek

A speed bump that is not clearly marked; a dark area due to improper lighting; or a large pothole that has formed over time are all examples of potential dangers in church parking lots. Each has the potential to cause congregation members or visitors to your church to slip or fall before they enter the building. Likewise, the parking lot is generally the first point of entry for criminals to access the property.

Because of this, the parking lot is a critical space to maintain and secure. It is just as important to keep this area of the building secure as it is for any other part of the building or grounds.

Churches are already at high-risk of liability because of the number of people coming and going each day. Maintaining the surface of the parking lot, ensuring the area is properly lit and enlisting the help of parking lot volunteers or even off-duty police officers are all things you can do to help protect members and guests of your church.

Potholes and cracks
As with any concrete surface, over time, parking lots can start to deteriorate and become hazardous for guests to walk or drive over. To avoid this, conduct a regular inspection of your parking lot and check for potential hazards. Obvious issues include potholes and cracks, but even curbs and speed bumps can cause problems if they are not properly maintained.

The surface of the parking lot should be in good condition and free of cracks and potholes. If cracks are greater than a quarter-inch, it is a potential trip hazard and should be repaired. Surfaces should be free from debris and slippery material, such as rocks, mud and sand. Also, tire stops are a potential hazard and require maintenance. These stops are exposed to damage from snowplows and vehicles.

Mark with color
Administrators should also be aware that speed bumps used to slow the speed of vehicles also present a tripping hazard. These are usually constructed of asphalt and will break down quicker from being exposed to the weather and vehicles. Mark speed bumps with a contrasting color so they do not blend in with the surface.

Snowplows can also cause damage to the surface of the parking lot, creating potential hazards. Be sure to make a regular inspection each year if you have snowplows clearing snow from your lot.

Curbs can be a tripping hazard if not designed and maintained properly. Curbs should be six inches high. If this height is not maintained, due to setting or design, an unforeseen hazard can be created.

Curbs leading to entrances and sidewalks should be painted in a contrasting color.

Curb cutouts that are installed to provide handicap access also should be marked with contrasting paint and grit should be added to the paint to create surface roughness.

Church functions are no longer limited to Sundays and can happen any day of the week, any hour of the day. This means that proper lighting plays an important role, not only by helping members get to and from their cars safely, but also by deterring criminals from being able to strike as easily when it is dark outside.

Lighting is measured in foot candles. At minimum, 10 foot candles should be mandatory for all lighting. However, for security lighting, or if you have a higher traffic area, higher levels of illumination may be necessary if it’s allowed by your local lighting ordinance.

Adequate lighting is necessary throughout the parking lot, as well as in all walkways and stairways. Look for shadows that may be created and adjust the lighting accordingly.

Inspect the lighting regularly and replace any light fixtures or bulbs that do not work.

Consider having your exterior lights set on timers or sensors that turn the lights on at dusk and off at dawn. If using timers, make sure to keep them adjusted for seasonal time changes.

The use of parking lot volunteers or even off-duty police officers has become more commonplace in recent years. The primary duty of parking lot volunteers or officers is to help direct traffic during busy times, such as before and after services or during large meetings or activities. They also should be aware of areas that have the potential to be hazardous to people walking to and from the building and should safely direct walkers away from those spots.

In addition, such personnel should be in tune to anything that appears out of the ordinary in the parking lot, which might pose a threat to the congregation or the building. If your church has an established safety and security team, the parking lot personnel should act as the outer layer of the church’s security. This means outdoor workers need to be able to quickly communicate with others inside the building, via two-way radio or cell phone, should they spot a potential threat.

Uniformed officers
Some churches prefer that uniformed officers perform this function as they can serve as a deterrent to would-be criminals. Other churches prefer that uniforms not be worn so that the church does not appear to be a fortress. This is a matter of personal preference for churches, but it is important to note that the deterrence function is greatly reduced if parking lot personnel are not easily identified through the use of uniforms or colored vests.

Off-duty police officers are a great addition to securing your parking lot as they are already trained to direct traffic and have the education necessary if an incident were to occur. A congregation member who also is a police officer may be willing to volunteer. If not, you might contact your local police department for information on engaging off-duty officers.

Your parking lot is the gateway to your building, so safeguarding its safety and security is vital. Ensuring that your parking lot is well maintained, aptly lit and accurately monitored is one more piece in the safety and security puzzle. Not only will your congregation feel safe as they enter and exit the building, but you also will feel safe knowing you have taken the necessary precautions to make certain they stay that way.

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

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