Risk Management in Parks & Recreation Settings

image of woman on climbing wall illustrating one type of risk management

Parks and recreation agencies have the responsibility to protect the safety of those using their parks and facilities. This responsibility includes identifying, addressing, and minimizing risk in areas and programming.

Risk occurs when a hazard may cause personal injury, property or environmental damage, economic loss, or death. Hazards are conditions unknown or misunderstood by a visitor that may result in injury.

Examples of hazards include:

  • An uneven playing surface on a sports field
  • A fallen branch on a trail
  • Hazardous chemicals near the pool
  • Slippery conditions on a facility’s floor 

Of course, many recreational activities have inherent risks. The risks draw people to the activities--like the adrenaline rush from sports, exploring nature, and exercise. Competitive activities encourage individuals to enjoy the thrill of victory while improving their performance. 

The programming would be extremely limited if we eliminated all risks. 

So how do we strike a balance between protecting staff and visitors at our sites and providing quality experiences that meet their personal preferences?

By creating a risk management plan. Risk has to be addressed or controlled in our assets and programs.

It starts with understanding negligence... 


What is Negligence?

Negligence is a failure to take action to prevent injuries and respond effectively when an injury occurs. Maintenance, programing, and administrative staff have the legal duty to identify, inform, and address hazards that may cause potential injuries. 

All parks and recreation staff need to be aware of this legal duty. Furthermore, they need to actively take measures to responsibly reduce the potential for injury and liability. 

A risk management plan allows everyone on the team to be on the same page when it comes to identifying, reporting, and addressing hazards.  


Why Agencies Should Have Risk Management Plans

The benefits of having a risk management plan by far outweigh the time and effort it takes to create one. Consider just a few of the many benefits:

  • Better Visitor Experience: Feeling safe is a basic human need. If one doesn’t feel safe, it’s--at the very least--distracting. More likely, it triggers that “fight-or-flight” part of the brain that puts someone on high alert. Conversely, an experience is much more enjoyable when visitors feel safe and worry-free. 
  • Protects Assets & Resources: Understanding and addressing risk helps safeguard an agency’s financial, human, and physical resources. 
  • Avoids Legal Problems: Doing everything necessary to reduce risk and alert visitors of potential risk protects an agency from costly liability suits.
  • Promotes Professionalism: Having risk management practices in place creates a standard of care that fosters an environment of professionalism and personal accountability.  
  • Provides a Source of Pride for Employees & Public: Your employees are proud of their work creating safe spots for the public to enjoy. The public is proud to make these spots the backdrop of their memories. 


Phases of Risk Management

A risk management plan typically has three phases. Completing each of the three phases allows for the most comprehensive approach to ensuring safety. 

Phase 1: Risk Identification

Reducing risk starts with identifying any hazards that may result in losses due to injury, litigation, or program disruptions. Staff with a deep understanding of risk management can identify hazards before a loss or injury occurs.

Some parks and recreation departments also hire an objective third party to identify areas of concern. Their fresh eyes can spot risks that may get overlooked by regular staff.

Phase 2: Risk Assessment

After risks get identified, they must be assessed. The evaluation includes:

  • Risk probability: How frequently they may occur.
  • Risk consequence: How severe the injury, loss, or organization’s financial impact will be if not addressed. 

Data plays a significant role in risk assessment. An agency should review previous records, expert opinions, and nationally available data from OSHA and the U.S Consumer Products Safety Commission to help assess risks.

As with identifying risks, a third party may be an excellent resource to assess risks objectively.

Phase 3: Creating a Risk Management Plan

Information from the first two phases creates the foundation for Phase 3. This phase address three elements:

  • Addressing issues: Adopting and facilitating changes to reduce hazards at assets and programs.
  • Creating policies and procedures: Setting a standard for all staff to recognize and manage risks.
  • Monitoring performance: Developing a risk management information system so records are readily available to review progress and in case of lawsuits. 


The Maintenance Department’s Role in Risk Management

The maintenance team plays a crucial role in managing risk. They are the eyes, ears, and voices of the parks and facilities they maintain. Establishing protocols and standards for identifying and addressing hazards is one of the first lines of defense in managing risk.

Proper training allows the maintenance crew to accurately spot and report hazards and risks. Training should also include:

  • Inspecting areas before and after public use
  • Routine maintenance and repair tasks
  • Equipment maintenance and repair
  • Interacting with the public when a hazard is present
  • Procedures for work orders
  • Preventing future hazards
  • Site specific requirements for risk management

One helpful practice for the maintenance crew is using checklists to perform daily or weekly inspections of parks, facilities, and playgrounds. Combining checklists with work order management allows any issues noticed to be addressed and documented more efficiently. 

Paper or digital records of inspections and work order tracking illustrate an agency’s diligence in risk management.   

The process of risk management requires ongoing attention. As an agency evolves, so does its need to address risks. Once an effective risk management plan gets established, adapting to changes becomes easier.