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03.12.2020 - Ausgabe: 6/2020

Safe sports fields – how operators can prevent accidents

© Jeanette Dietl - stock.adobe.com

As a member of the board of a sports club, you are already halfway to prison, they say. The phrase is exaggerated, of course, but there is always a shred of truth in statements such as these. Perhaps even more than just a shred. Such offices come with a very high level of responsibility – and many of us will, often voluntarily, accept this. This responsibility includes not only club finances, tax matters and contracts with trainers, but also the safety of every active athlete in the club and everyone who uses the club’s sports facilities. Of course, such obligations to ensure general safety will apply not only to club-owned facilities, but also to public sports grounds; the local authority will of course in the latter case bear the primary responsibility. Operators of sports facilities will therefore bear responsibility for the safety of athletes – but how to guarantee this? Yet, just a little organisation and regular checks will achieve much already.

The probably best-known safety challenge on the sports field is the problem of youth football goals. Although a number of tragic accidents occurred in the past, soccer goals that cannot tip over are common today. Special technical devices have solved this kind of problem, but it is not always that easy to find a quick solution. What is important is that problems will be detected before they lead to injury.

Many and probably most injuries on the sports field will, of course, happen as a result of the sport activity as such. This includes rupturing muscle fibres when sprinting, sprained feet in the heat of a duel or falling from a skateboard. Sports accidents are frequent, irrespective of the condition of the sports facilities. Yet there will often be causative issues and it may turn expensive if operators of sports facilities can be shown to have neglected their obligation to ensure safe use. But this does not need to be.

The basic requirements for safe use of sports facilities are regular visual inspection and functional testing. All the sports facilities under an operator will be inspected at regular intervals, e.g. weekly, preferably by a specific group of people, i.e. club groundskeepers, training supervisors or municipal employees. It is important that this group of ‘inspectors’ does not change, since changes and damage will then be detected sooner. Holes in the sports field, loose screws in ball catching fences, a broken board at the jumping pit or a misplaced manhole cover – such damage should be noticed during inspections. Inspections should also strictly be documented to ensure sustainability and optimal safety. This will be indispensable in cases of damage. Functional checks should also be carried out at regular intervals, ideally once a month. The sports facilities and, above all, the equipment, will here be checked for proper functionality. Defective or damaged equipment found during inspections must be repaired, removed or barred should such defects or damage endanger the safety of sports activities. It should, whatever the case, be ensured that such facilities cannot be used until again found fit for use. It is particularly important, especially in terms of legal certainty of facility operators, that functional checks are also documented. This will be necessary to prove that regular checks have been carried out and also to explain to other users why affected sports facilities or equipment are currently unavailable.

Regular major inspections of the sports facilities and equipment will, in addition to routine and functional checks, also be necessary. Such inspections should, wherever possible, be carried out by outside experts not involved in the regular visual inspections and functional checks mentioned above. Such major inspections may be seen as testing of the sports facilities by a “Technical Supervisory Authority”, representing detailed and comprehensive testing of the functionalities and safety of use and verification of operator compliance. It is important in the course of major inspections to ensure that the person carrying out the inspection will be technically qualified or ideally even has passed an advanced training course in the field of sports ground safety (e.g. “Safety management on outdoor sports facilities” at the University of Applied Sciences, Osnabrück). Inspectors carry high levels of responsibility and will certainly be liable at execution levels should they prove negligent during inspections. Detailed audit reports will be indispensable. Major inspections should, depending on the sports facility, user frequency and the cycle of other inspections, be carried out at least once a year, preferably quarterly or even monthly. Inspectors should, before major inspections, thoroughly familiarise themselves with the facility, its location, the care and maintenance requirements of the specific sports equipment and fields and the typical users of the facility. The inspection reports of the last major inspection and all intermediate checks should for this purpose be studied. Everything will thereafter be checked and documented in detail. All facility damages and defects will be noted and evaluated. This will establish not only whether the equipment / sports facilities are unusable already and not safe for use, but also record minor defects which may not yet preclude safe use. The FLL [Forschungsgesellschaft Landschaftsentwicklung Landschaftsbau e.V]. has a “Sample sheet for the preparation of inspection reports for visual inspections of sports equipment and facilities” with six defect assessment levels. Intermediate stages exist between stage 1 “no defects” and stage 6 “unusable” for defects which may be remedied immediately. Inspection reports should be detailed and quite comprehensive, covering everything, including areas where no deficiencies were found. What was inspected? Who inspected and when? What was noticed? What was repaired on site, when and by whom, was a repair order issued, for what, and who will carry it out? What may need to be examined more closely again? Photographs of any damage and defects would be highly desirable in the report. 

What may at first glance sound like bureaucratic detail may, in case of doubt, be a deciding factor in later litigation. Merely proof of regular visual inspections and checks may already convince the court that operators have fulfilled their duties. Major inspections by persons external to the association / municipality will provide further relief, provided that recorded deficiencies and damages were remedied.

Litigation, however, is a worst case scenario that all parties involved would be keen to avoid. The controls and checks described above will adequately prevent such a scenario already. It is also possible, of course, to further improve the safety of sports facilities. It is desirable that as many users as possible will be sensitised to safe use of the sports facilities. Dangers may often be eliminated sooner if damage and defects can be reported to operators immediately, without waiting for the latter to find these himself. Regular professional care and maintenance will also be necessary. This may include removal of leaves, checks on drainage and lighting, or shutdown in cases of unusual conditions (after heavy rainfalls, snow, etc.). 

Sportsmen and women are often very keen to exercise their sport and are wont to ignore possible dangers. Sports facility operators therefore have a duty to ensure that using the sports facilities will be as safe as possible. Provided operators fulfil this duty by regular inspection, they will not only reduce the risk of injury but simultaneously increase legal security. They will thereby reverse their proverbial progress “halfway to prison”.

Please refer to the “Sports Field Maintenance Guidelines”, available from the Forschungsgesellschaft Landschaftsentwicklung Landschaftsbau e.V. (FLL), for more information and to a current DFB [German Football Association] publication “Verkehrssicherheit auf dem Sportplatz” [Sports ground safety].


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