Centering Safety

February 22, 2024, Feature, by Kolby Burkhardt, M.S., CSP

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A holistic approach to park and recreation safety management

Park and recreation professionals make it happen; they provide our communities with improved quality of life, offer educational opportunities and maintain our green spaces. However, this isn’t accomplished without some level of risk. In fact, serious injuries and fatalities occur every year to agency employees. In 2023, an Ohio park and recreation employee was seriously injured after being struck by a trailer while mowing grass at a sports field. In 2022, a Texas park and recreation employee received a fatal shock while installing lights at a city park. These incidents provide a stark reminder for park and recreation professionals that the essential services we provide aren’t without some risk. Our focus goes beyond day-to-day operations and extends to the department, and each subsequent division, thus creating a holistic view on managing safety.

Why Safety Management?

If you’ve seen NRPA’s CAPRA standards, then you know that building a comprehensive management system of operational best practices benefits the agency, the organization and the community you serve. The same effort can be made when considering improving the safety and well-being of your park and recreation agency. The implementation of a comprehensive Occupational Health and Safety Management System, as outlined in ANSI/ASSE Z10, stands as a pivotal commitment for any organization, including park and recreation departments. The standard offers a structured framework that emphasizes the essential components necessary to foster a safety-centric environment.

Outlined across several sections within ANSI/ASSE Z10, the core principles of safety management range from management leadership and employee participation to evaluation and corrective action. Each section encompasses critical elements vital for the creation and maintenance of an effective safety management system.

The standard highlights the importance of:

  • Management leadership and employee participation: Establishing strong leadership commitment alongside active employee involvement to drive safety initiatives forward.
  • Planning: Conducting thorough reviews and assessments and setting clear objectives and implementation plans.
  • Implementation and operation: Executing operational elements, from risk assessments to emergency preparedness, ensuring a systematic approach to safety practices.
  • Evaluation and corrective action: Monitoring, investigating incidents, conducting audits and initiating corrective actions to continually enhance the safety system.
  • Management review: Regularly reviewing processes, outcomes and ensuring follow-up actions to foster continual improvement.

The integration of ANSI Z10 and CAPRA standards can allow monumental strides toward a safer future within park and recreation departments. This collaborative framework not only ensures compliance with industry standards, but also fosters a culture where safety permeates every operation, initiative and engagement.

Taking Action

Let’s face it, accreditation isn’t achieved overnight, and neither is a robust safety culture. However, deciding to act today might make the difference in preventing a serious injury or fatality tomorrow. The following actions can help start the process of building a comprehensive safety management system for your park and recreation agency.

Make Safety a Strategic Priority

In the realm of parks and recreation, safety should not merely be a component; it should be the cornerstone of every operation and decision. Embracing safety as a strategic priority necessitates a paradigm shift, where safety isn’t an afterthought but rather the foundation upon which every initiative is built. If a new sports complex is being designed, you might consider how the park maintenance employee will move bleachers without seriously injuring themself in the process. Again, safety is a priority and should be considered in the design phase of our park strategy.

Ensuring safety requires a top-down approach. It’s about fostering a culture where safety is woven into the fabric of the organization, becoming a core value upheld by every employee. This strategic prioritization begins with acknowledging that safety is integral to fulfilling the agency’s purpose. It’s not a hindrance but an enabler that allows park and recreation professionals to carry out their responsibilities effectively and securely. Moreover, strategic safety prioritization entails allocating dedicated resources — be it financial, technological or human — to fortify safety initiatives. It involves investing in state-of-the-art safety equipment, providing comprehensive safety training programs and establishing responsive protocols to address potential risks swiftly and effectively.

By making safety a strategic priority, park and recreation agencies not only protect their employees and stakeholders, but also fortify the very foundation upon which their services are built. It’s an investment in the well-being of communities, employees, and the sustainability of park and recreation spaces. Consider these actions to prioritize safety within your park and recreation department or agency:

  • Leadership commitment: Advocate for a top-down approach where leaders champion safety as a core value. Engage leadership to demonstrate visible commitment to safety initiatives.
  • Develop a safety plan: Create a comprehensive safety plan that aligns with the department’s goals. Outline strategies, protocols and resource allocation dedicated to safety enhancement.
  • Allocate resources: Ensure adequate resources — financial, technological and human — are allocated to fortify safety initiatives. Invest in modern safety equipment and effective training programs.
  • Integrate safety in decision making: Emphasize safety in every decision and initiative. Discuss safety implications in all planning sessions, from events to facility management.
  • Training and education: Prioritize continuous safety training for staff at all levels. Develop programs that enhance safety knowledge, risk awareness and emergency response.
  • Safety assessments and audits: Conduct regular safety assessments and audits across all operational areas. Identify potential hazards, assess risks and implement preventive measures.
  • Communication and transparency: Foster open communication channels regarding safety measures, incidents and best practices. Encourage employees to report safety concerns promptly.
  • Collaborate with stakeholders: Engage park boards, commissions and community stakeholders in safety discussions. Garner support and resources for safety-related endeavors.
  • Incident analysis and improvement: Establish protocols for incident investigations. Analyze incidents, identify root causes and implement corrective actions to prevent future occurrences.
  • Promote safety culture: Cultivate a culture where safety is ingrained in daily operations and values. Encourage a shared responsibility for safety among all staff members.

Discuss Safety With Park Boards and Commissions

Park boards and commissions serve in an advisory capacity by engaging the community in all matters pertaining to parks and recreation. Engaging park boards and commissions in discussions about safety is paramount for integrating safety as a fundamental aspect of decision-making processes. These boards and commissions play a pivotal role in setting policies, allocating resources and shaping the overall direction of park and recreation departments.

Initiating conversations about safety with these governing bodies ensures that safety isn’t treated as a siloed concern when designing future parks, playgrounds and recreational facilities. For example, the commission might include a design requirement for outdoor warning systems that not only help the community, but also staff members, during emergencies.

These discussions act as an opportunity to garner support for necessary safety-related budget allocations. By articulating the impact of safety investments on employee well-being, community trust and the department’s overall efficiency, departments can secure the resources needed to bolster safety measures.

Assign Safety Responsibilities

Park and recreation departments are entrusted with the well-being of countless community members, but we also must acknowledge the importance of the safety of department personnel. As someone who has served as a safety professional for a municipality, and continues to do so through safety consultations, I have the privilege of gaining firsthand insights into the unique challenges park and recreation agencies face. There’s one thing I learned: our park and recreation employees face a multitude of unique risks, such as working from heights, the potential for electrocution, and even the dangers of being struck by a vehicle while performing special event traffic management. These are not your typical office risks but real-life dangers that demand our attention. Effective safety management within park and recreation departments and agencies involves assigning responsibilities to people to help ensure efforts are made systematically across the agency. For example, two divisions may be having similar injuries, and without a centralized safety effort, one may implement a risk reduction strategy without communicating to the other.

Establish a Park and Recreation Safety Committee

Forming a dedicated safety committee within park and recreation departments and agencies is a proactive step toward consolidating safety efforts and fostering a culture of safety. This committee serves as a focal point, driving safety-related initiatives, assessments and interventions across the department. The committee ideally should comprise representatives from diverse departments within the park and recreation organization. Including members from operations, maintenance, aquatics, events and administrative sectors ensures comprehensive coverage and diverse perspectives on safety concerns specific to each domain. The primary mandate of this safety committee is to serve as a think tank, deliberating on safety policies, procedures and best practices. They assess existing safety measures, identify potential gaps and recommend strategies to mitigate risks effectively. One of the committee’s pivotal responsibilities is conducting routine safety audits and risk assessments across different facilities and operational areas. These assessments serve as a diagnostic tool, identifying potential hazards, assessing risks and proposing preventive measures to enhance safety. Moreover, the committee serves as a conduit for disseminating safety-related information, ensuring that safety protocols, updates and best practices are communicated effectively across all departments. Another critical aspect is the committee’s role in incident investigation and analysis. In the unfortunate event of accidents or near-misses, the committee conducts thorough investigations, identifies root causes and formulates corrective actions to prevent recurrence. Establishing a park and recreation safety committee isn’t just about compliance; it’s about fostering a collaborative, proactive approach toward ensuring a safe environment for employees and visitors alike. It’s about nurturing a culture where safety is strategic, systematic and here to stay.

Educate New Employees on Fatal Risks

Sometimes new employees draw the short straw when it comes to unpopular work assignments. Some of these assignments have elevated risks, like operating heavy equipment near power lines or near water hazards. When onboarding new employees, it’s pivotal to initiate their journey with a comprehensive understanding of potentially fatal risks inherent in their roles. This educational component serves as a foundational element in fostering a safety-conscious workforce.

Begin by conducting thorough orientation sessions that explicitly highlight the critical risks associated with various job functions. If someone is assigned to handle corrosive chemicals, they should be shown how to handle them safely and be told how past incidents have occurred and what the department learned from those incidents. Utilize real-life examples or case studies from within the department or industry to underscore the gravity of safety measures. Share incidents where precautionary measures could have averted accidents, emphasizing the importance of adherence to safety protocols. Engage seasoned employees or safety experts to conduct interactive sessions, offering insights and firsthand experiences related to fatal risks in the field. Encourage open dialogue where new hires can ask questions and voice concerns, fostering an environment where safety education is participative and engaging. Encourage mentorship programs where new employees are paired with experienced staff who exemplify a strong safety culture. This mentorship facilitates a smoother transition, allowing new hires to learn from seasoned professionals who prioritize safety in their daily routines. Lastly, periodically revisit safety training sessions for ongoing reinforcement. Reach out to industry experts or safety professionals for a third-party audit or external view on risks.

Park and Facility Safety Walks

Accomplish several of the core elements of ANSI Z10 by performing safety walks throughout your park system. Safety walks provide a unique opportunity for employees from different departments to gain valuable insights into the safety precautions involved in their colleagues’ tasks. These walks involve individuals who may not regularly perform specific jobs but are eager to understand the safety measures necessary to prevent injuries. Imagine a scenario where a maintenance worker walks alongside a lifeguard during their routine inspection of a swimming pool area. The maintenance worker, although not responsible for pool safety, gets a firsthand look at the meticulous checks, protocols and emergency procedures the lifeguard follows. This experience not only enhances their safety awareness, but also fosters a sense of mutual understanding and respect between divisions. The benefits of safety walks include:

  • Improved awareness: Safety walks promote a deeper understanding of the unique challenges and precautions associated with various roles within the department. This heightened awareness can lead to better safety practices across the board.
  • Cross-divisional collaboration: By engaging personnel from different divisions in safety walks, a culture of collaboration and shared responsibility for safety is cultivated. Safety is a collective effort, and everyone plays a part.
  • Fresh perspectives: Safety walks bring fresh perspectives to safety considerations. Employees from other divisions may ask questions and suggest safety improvements that those directly involved in a task may not have considered.
  • Improved problem solving: The open dialogue that results from safety walks can lead to more effective problem solving. Sharing experiences and insights can help identify potential safety gaps and find solutions.

Remember, it’s about creating a management system that works for your agency, not against it. Improvements resulting from these safety walks reduce hazards and risks in a systematic manner.

Wrapping Up

Safety management within park and recreation departments and agencies isn’t merely about compliance — it’s a fundamental commitment to safeguarding both employees and the communities they serve. The complex nature of park and recreation activities demands a holistic approach to safety that goes beyond preventing injuries or writing procedures. By fostering a culture where safety is not just a priority, but an integral part of the department’s DNA, park and recreation professionals pave the way for a safer environment for all involved. Initiating safety dialogues with park and recreation boards, establishing dedicated safety committees, and integrating safety into all facets of operations form the backbone of a robust safety framework. Moreover, aligning safety measures with industry standards like ANSI Z10 and exploring potential alignment with CAPRA accreditation fortifies these efforts.

Author’s Note: To learn more, please see my article, “Transforming Local Government Safety: Strategies for Fatal Risk Reduction,” in Public Risk magazine.

Kolby Burkhardt, M.S., CSP, is Safety and Loss Control Consultant at Texas Municipal League Intergovernmental Risk Pool.