Elements of a Safe Learning Environment
Unavoidable injuries sometimes occur during a class activity. A careful risk management program can, however, significantly reduce the likelihood of such accidents and subsequent lawsuits. Risk management is essentially a process of identifying and understanding those circumstances in which accidents are most likely to occur and taking appropriate steps to minimize their occurence.
The instructor is responsible for providing a safe learning environment. The curriculum should be designed in such a way as to provide minimal risk to participants as they learn new skills appropriate to their abilities. In the classroom, the instructor needs to remove dangerous obstacles, set up equipment correctly, visually check the operational condition of the equipment, maintain order in the class, and closely supervise each participant in the class.
- Supervision. While generally supervising a class, instructors should be immediately accessible to all participants and should be constantly alert for deviations from normal procedure or hazardous conditions. Although it may be impossible to see all participants all the time, this is the ideal to strive for. Moving about the room will help to maintain the best field of vision. Instructors should be aware of the physical condition of participants (in fitness classes, especially) and should continually observe for signs fo distress.
- Conduct of the activity. Although there is always risk of injury, very few sports or recreational activities are regarded as unsafe. In the event of accidental injury, the question is not whether the activity was unsafe, but whether it was conducted properly. Proper conduct includes (a) selecting skills and tasks that are reasonable and appropriate for the age and ability levels of the participants; (b) providing instruction that is factually correct and sufficiently detailed to ensure participant success; (c) warning participants of potential hazards and telling them how they can be avoided; and (d) providing protective measures and safety equipment where needed.
- Environmental conditions. The facility and equipment must be safe and appropriate for the activity. Routine inspections of the teaching facility for potential safety hazards are the responsibility of facility management, program management, and instructors. Instructors should immediately notify the facility supervisor or program staff of any such conditions prior to starting class. Good judgement should be used in determining whether to hold class if an environmental hazard cannot be removed or corrected. Instructors should evaluate whether the scope and activity of the class can be adjusted to compensate and still conduct a safe class. If so, they should work with the facility supervisor to mark the hazard clearly and keep participants away until the situation can be corrected, or arrange to use another facility.
- Supervisory judgement. Supervisory judgement encompasses a variety of circumstances in which one is required to use common sense or prudent judgement. Two areas that require careful supervisory judgement are the handling of injuries and the selection of appropriate activities for the participants’ abilities. Instructors should understand and follow the program guidelines for injuries. Participants should be montored carefully and new skills introduced only when they are ready to progress. Steps should be taken to avoid mismatching participants when physical contact is likely (basketball, fencing, etc.).
Despite best efforts, accidents can happen. However, many injuries can be prevented by taking reasonable care. Professionalism is the key to risk management. Careful preparation and thoughtful actions are essential to reduce liability. The safety of participants is a primary responsibility. Although this duty is of tremendous importance and cannot be neglected, neither should it be feared.