Safe & Sound
Accidents, injuries, and lawsuits can devastate your business. Here’s how you can help reduce problems that might crop up at your facility.
Is your tennis facility safe? No, that’s not a trick question. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to answer, either. And it’s getting more complex all the time.
Accidents can happen. Injuries can occur. Problems can crop up. And let’s face it, unlike swimming pools, tennis courts don’t have lifeguards who can keep an eye on players. We live in a litigious society, and simple problems don’t always have simple outcomes.
It’s easy to fall back on the old “we haven’t had any problems yet” response. But “yet” is the operative word. Your tennis courts are part of a facility into which a lot of money and time has been invested. Do you really want to leave them to chance?
So what’s a manager to do? Well, to rephrase a popular notion, the best defense is a good … defense. What does that mean? Simply put, being proactive can pay off for you, your users, and your facility. There are plenty of common-sense steps that can be taken to help lower risks and decrease the possibility of problems. Some you may have considered, and some might be new to you, but all deserve some thought.
The American Sports Builders Association, the trade association for those who design, build, and supply materials and equipment for athletic facilities, advises a proactive approach to the matter. Think for a minute about your risk factors, the potential threats to your facility and your players. There are two kinds: internal (those which exist, or which potentially can exist, within the facility), and external (those caused by outside forces). Now, let’s examine them and discuss how to lower the risks.
The best way to check for internal hazards is to make a regularly scheduled walk-through of your facility. Bring a notepad and a pen, and keep your eyes open. If possible, carry a schematic showing each court by number, so that if you see problems, you can note the court number and the location.
- Fencing: First, check the perimeter of your courts. How is your fencing holding up? Do you see snags, rusted areas or sharp edges? Have any areas near the bottom of the fence been bent in such a way that they could cause injury to an unsuspecting player who is chasing a ball? Are there places where your fence is heaving or buckling? Make sure you check fence footings as well, and pay attention to gates to see if latches are functioning properly.
Check the area where the court surface meets the fence, and under the fence, for potential problems, as well. In some cases, the concern may be as simple as a buildup of leaves or debris that slows or stops water from running off the court during a rainstorm. Wet leaves can cause slippery footing.
- Lighting: Spend some time examining the light poles on each court, advises Bruce Frasure of LSI Courtsider Sports Lighting in Cincinnati. You may be surprised by what you find.
”We’ve found that the most common safety issue is with light poles that have corroded over time,” says Frasure. “The corrosion reaches a point where the poles become structurally unstable; the possibility then exists that the lighting assembly might collapse. Corrosion issues are most common at facilities in coastal areas where the salt air environment is especially harsh. Corrosion also commonly occurs at clay-court facilities with above-ground irrigation. We recommend a yearly inspection of a facility’s light poles to check for corrosion. Poles that show minor corrosion should be sanded and re-coated to prevent further damage. Poles that show severe corrosion should be replaced immediately.”
- Net Posts: Check each net post carefully. Posts are equipped with screw-type, worm-gear, or ratchet-type internal or external winding mechanisms to tighten the net. Internal-wind posts cost more than external wind posts, but are both safer and more attractive. Some older courts are still equipped with net posts featuring lever action tightening mechanisms. These posts are considered a danger to players and should be replaced.
To prevent a potential hazard, all net posts with external winding mechanisms should be limited in the amount of force applied to the net post, not to exceed one-half of the post’s yield strength. In the extreme, over-tensioning the net can cause the post to shift or bend or the net cable to snap.
In addition, the winding mechanisms on all net posts should have handles which can be removed or secured or which are set parallel to the post. Where courts are staffed, the pro or maintenance staff should set the net tension and remove the handle. Where handles cannot realistically be removed, safety over-caps provide protection against injury
- Nets: Take a moment to examine the net itself, and to look for fraying, unraveling or other signs of breakdown. It might not be a safety hazard, but an old net detracts from the aesthetic value of your court and should be replaced. If your nets have center straps, make sure the anchor pins are firmly fixed in the court.
- Surface: There are many tennis court surfaces, and all manufacturers have specific directions for taking care of their own. It is not the purpose of this checklist to provide those directions; consult your manufacturer or your court contractor for their instructions. As a matter of course, however, it is easy to keep potential problems to a minimum by following a few simple steps, depending on the type of court you have.
- Acrylic Courts — uncushioned (asphalt or concrete with an acrylic color coating): During the walk-through, remove any debris or litter on the court. Fallen leaves should be removed before they rot and cause slippery spots. If you see cracks on the court during your inspection, call a contractor.
- Cushioned Courts — hard (concrete or asphalt courts with a layer of cushioned material): Check for dust, dirt, and debris. Look for dents, dings, cuts, tears, or blisters in the surface. Remember that small spot may worsen, becoming a potential tripping hazard. If damage is evident, contact your contractor immediately to discuss repair options.
- Modular Surfaces (interlocking tiles composed of polypropylene and rubber): Check for damp spots, since these can mean a slippery surface for players. Damaged tiles should be pried up and replaced.
- Fast Dry Courts (granular, fast-dry material): Courts with this type of surface should have their own maintenance schedule for daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal work. Check with your contractor or surface manufacturer for their recommendations. Conditions which may trap surface water should be eliminated so the courts drain and dry properly — standing water can lead to a slippery spot on the court.
- Synthetic Turf: Keep an eye out for standing water, which can translate into slippery spots of algae. If you see any wrinkling or splitting of the surface, notify your contractor, since these problems can constitute a tripping hazard and, if left alone, will worsen.
If you feel uncertain checking your court surface, give your court contractor a call and ask him or her to do a walk-though for you. A professional may be more adept at spotting potential trouble spots than you.
- Court Equipment: If your court enclosure includes maintenance equipment that is provided for the convenience of players, take each piece down and check it thoroughly. Make sure items such as brooms or squeegees for uncushioned courts, and line sweepers and drag brooms for granular courts, are not only still useful, but safe for players to use. Tools with loose handles, rust, peeling paint, splinters, or other signs of aging should be repaired or replaced immediately.
- General Safety: Much has been written about players who, in running after a ball, collide with fences, backstops, light poles, equipment, and other players. In its book, Tennis Courts: A Construction and Maintenance Manual, the American Sports Builders Association recommends that as part of general design principles, courts be built according to its Construction Guidelines. According to ASBA, overall recommended court area is 60 x 120 feet, which allows for a total playing area of 36 x 78 feet for doubles. (This provides a standard court size, plus a safe overrun area.) The book goes on to recommend that in terms of design:
A minimum clearance of 12 feet (3.658m) from the sideline to a fixed obstruction (e.g., light pole, wall or fence) is recommended. Fences should be centered on the court boundary. Light poles should be centered on or immediately adjacent to the court boundary, or located at the net line. If the court dimensions are reduced by the owner so that the recommended clearance cannot be achieved, fixed obstructions should be located at the court boundary. Shade structures and portable equipment such as cooler stands, benches, and umpire chairs, commonly placed within the recommended clearance, should be located within 12 feet (3.658m) of the net line; within this area, the minimum recommended clearance for such items can be reduced to 10 feet (3.048m). Existing facilities which have fixed obstructions not meeting these recommendations should consider the use of appropriate padding.
For a battery of courts within a common enclosure, a 24-foot (7.315m) separation between sidelines is recommended, while 12 feet (3.658m) is considered the minimum, although some older courts were constructed with less. A 24-foot (7.315m) separation provides sufficient space for a shade structure or player seating between courts, as well as for a safe overrun area for the players. A 24-foot separation between sidelines in a battery also permits installation of divider fences to prevent balls from rolling onto adjacent courts. Since divider fences are considered fixed obstructions, they should be 12-feet (3.658m) from the sidelines of each court and, therefore, a 24-foot (7.315m) separation is recommended for their installation. For courts where movable netting is used between courts, a minimum of 18 feet (5.486m) between sidelines is recommended. Divider netting is not considered a fixed obstruction.
For indoor courts, the ASBA recommends any support columns and other fixed obstructions in indoor court buildings, as well as any structural member or masonry wall within 12 inches (305mm) of a permanent opaque curtain, should be padded with shock-absorbing material (foam rubber that is at least 2 inches thick is recommended). The padding should begin at the court surface and extend up to at least 7 feet (2.133m) above the court surface. Beware of the tendency to store equipment behind an opaque curtain, which can create a hidden hazard.
According to David H. Pettit of Feil, Pettit & Williams in Charlottesville, Va., legal counsel to the ASBA, it’s not enough to assume that athletes will accept the blame for any injuries they might incur while using the facility.
”While participants in athletic activities are generally expected to understand and accept the risks inherent in the sport, the facility owner or operator may well be held responsible for risks that are not generally foreseeable and are not inherent in the sport, such as those resulting from improper maintenance, improper design, or hidden hazards,” notes Pettit.
”Judges and juries are very unpredictable, and in cases involving serious injuries, juries are particularly sympathetic to injured parties. For additional protection, operators should consider posting signs requiring appropriate footwear, advising that the courts are slippery when wet, and stating that participants play at their own risk. Having participants sign a release in advance of play may be helpful, although it may not be practical. While measures such as warnings and releases are not guaranteed to be effective, they can be a useful part of the risk-management effort.”
- First Aid and Player Safety: Try to keep players’ safety in mind by adding a few amenities to courts:
- Telephones: Make sure that each battery of courts has at least one phone located in a convenient place, so as to allow players to call for help in case of accident or emergency. If necessary, post signs stating that the phones are for emergency use only. Make sure to post the phone numbers of the club’s pro, the office, and other important contacts, and have the address of the club and courts printed on the signs.
- Shade Shelters: A place for players to rest, and to get out of the sun, can head off problems. Add plenty of comfortable benches and chairs.
- Water Fountains: A source of drinking water should be located adjacent to tennis courts to help players keep hydrated and avoid overheating during or after play. If it isn’t possible to install a permanent water connection, consider a power hookup for a small refrigerator, or use a portable water cooler stand.
- First Aid Kits: No court enclosure should be without a first aid kit. Your local chapter of the American Red Cross can advise you on what such kits should contain.
- Staff Training and Accident Procedure: Staff training can help minimize the risk of work-related injuries and prepare your staff to deal properly with player and guest accidents.
- Working Smart: Teach your staff how to use all equipment (especially power equipment) safely and in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations. Since back injuries are especially common among employees who do physical work, make certain all employees learn proper techniques for lifting, moving, bending, and so forth. Provide staffers with lift-support belts, gloves, safety glasses, and other safety equipment as appropriate.
Encourage your staff to work in pairs, especially when doing difficult work or long, complicated, and challenging tasks. When such jobs are planned, conduct a safety meeting to review the potential hazards and to discuss necessary precautions.
Keep water available during long work periods and encourage the staff to take reasonable breaks in the shade, especially when it is hot. Within the limits of the law, ask your staff members to disclose any medical issues that may affect their health and safety on the job and assign their work appropriately. Request emergency contact information from all staff members and keep readily accessible.
Develop a proactive safety program using a safety handbook, job site safety posters, precautionary stickers and/or warning signs to identify hazards, including such simple things as flying balls in or near the courts.
In Case of Emergency
Despite all your precautions, an accident may occur. Develop an accident procedure and regularly review it with your staff. Train employees to respond appropriately to any accident — whether to an employee, a player, or guest.
Provide staff training on basic first aid (don’t move an injured person unless a danger exists, use pressure to stop bleeding) and Cardiac Life Support. Have them update their training on a regular schedule during the off season. The Red Cross and similar community organizations provide such training at very low cost.
When in doubt, assume the injury is serious and call for help. Make certain there is a telephone — land line or cellular — available at all times. Once you have called 911, position staff members to direct the ambulance to the injured person. Unlock and open your widest gate to allow immediate access to the emergency vehicle, with no obstructions in its path, if it must reach the injured person on the court.
Keep your facility’s insurance policies and forms up to date and, if appropriate, send a copy of the policy information with the injured person to the emergency room. Request contact information from the injured person and call the family; be certain to mention what actions you already have taken.
Document everything — the accident scene, the nature of the injury, date, time, weather, what actions were taken, how long it took the emergency vehicle to arrive, what actions were taken by emergency personnel on site, etc. Have a camera at hand and take pictures if possible. Have any witnesses complete a statement as to what they saw, where they were, what happened and how, in as much detail as they can recall. Get complete contact information from witnesses and emergency personnel in case you need to call back for more information.
Despite all your attempts to avoid accidents and injuries, such things do happen, so make a plan in advance and review it regularly. When someone has been injured, time is of the essence, but so is risk management.
External factors are those forces that don’t come from within your facility, and which have the potential to cause harm.
Your facility hours are important. Whether the facility is open 24/7, open dawn to dusk, or open only during specific periods of the day is a matter of preference, and something your organization needs to decide for itself. There are many arguments — all valid — for each option. Just remember, if you do decide to close your facility at certain times, use gates that lock. It will cut down on the possibility of unsupervised use of, and possibly damage to, your facility.
Lighting is another way to increase the safety and security of your facility. If you will be hosting athletic events at night, lighting of your courts and the surrounding area is, of course, a must. Even if you don’t have night events, lighting can increase a sense of security among facility users. And generally speaking, a well-lit area of any kind is less likely to be a magnet for those who want to loiter or cause trouble after hours.
In facilities open all night, lights can be set to operate on a timer, or they can be operated by a push-button system that the person entering the facility can manipulate. Generally speaking, it is also good to have some motion-activated lights in and around the facility, to allow for safe entry and exit. These lights are smaller than the big lamps that illuminate the court itself, yet still allow for increased visibility. They are also an excellent way to tell if someone is near the facility.
Does your club or facility have a security force? If so, can an officer be detailed to be in the area of, or near, the tennis courts? Particularly if the facility will be used at night, the presence of a security officer can be reassuring. If that isn’t possible, make sure phones are readily available in the event a user suddenly feels threatened or unsafe. Many campuses, parks and other areas are installing “panic buttons” that allow individuals to call for an escort, should the situation present itself.
If your facility has its own rest rooms, consider locking these at night. Regardless of whether users complain, it’s safer for everyone involved if those facilities are only open during hours when there is a high traffic volume. In some cases, the “safety in numbers” rule should always be followed.
If your facility can be used unsupervised after hours, remember to safely lock away all athletic equipment, such as ball machines, squeegees, etc.
- Insurance: According to ASBA legal counsel David Pettit, facility insurance is a must. “Every tennis facility owner and operator should carry comprehensive general liability insurance to cover claims for bodily injury,” says Pettit. “In my opinion, limits of $2 million per claim, plus defense costs, are the minimum required to provide adequate protection for the owner and operator. In cases involving particularly serious injuries, the potential liability may exceed this amount, so it may be prudent to carry greater coverage limits.”
If the facility owner is not the operator, adds Pettit, “The parties should enter into a written lease or management agreement that clearly allocates responsibility for maintenance and repairs, with special attention to those that affect health and safety issues, and identifies the party responsible for carrying liability insurance.”
If your tennis facility includes a youth program, or if players often bring their children, Pettit advises facility owners and managers to exercise extra caution, since “claims for injuries to children are generally governed by different rules relating to understanding and accepting risk of injury.” The facility operator, he notes, should be particularly vigilant to supervise the activities of minors in order to maintain a safe environment for them.
Remember that your facility represents a huge investment of time. You want to keep it as safe as possible. Do a night walk-though every week or so. Look for lights that might be out, dark, shadowy areas where players might feel unsafe — anything that needs fixing — and have it addressed immediately.
Keeping it a safe facility — and therefore, an even more attractive one — will pay dividends in years to come.
Thanks to SportsField Management magazine, which graciously authorized the use of material from its publication dealing with work-site safety and emergency planning. For information on SportsField Management magazine, including advertising information or a free subscription, visit sportsfieldmanagementmagazine.com.
The American Sports Builders Association is a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators, and users understand quality sports facility construction. The ASBA offers meetings and publications on running tracks, tennis courts, and indoor sports facilities. Available at no charge is a listing of all publications offered by the Association, as well as the ASBA’s Membership Directory. For information, call 866-501-ASBA (2722) or visit sportsbuilders.org.
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.