by Beth A. Block
The next time you’re in your school, set aside five minutes for a tour of the space. Look at everything: the entryway, guest area, office, bathrooms and floor. Try to see it all through the eyes of someone who’s never been inside your building before. Take some notes on what you see. When you’re done, come back and pick this column up again.
OK, ready? Check your notes. Do they include the need to clean the entryway floors? Did you see a leaky faucet in the bathroom? A leak in a ceiling tile? An exposed sharp counter edge? Did you notice whether plug protectors are in the unused electrical outlets? Are there support pillars from the floor to ceiling? Where are they located, and are they padded?
During my years in martial arts studios, I’ve seen students and guests get hurt in many ways. One incident involved a studio that had a 15-year-old fall into a steel support pole. This student was participating in the adult class. On this particular evening, they were working on sparring drills. The instructor had transitioned the class from no-contact drills to bag drills and partner drills.
The students were having a blast. They were inspired. Although there was no actual sparring, everyone was working hard. The head instructor was excited to see how successful the lesson was. He also knew it would be an extra-safe class because there was no contact.
In the final phase of the class, the 15-year-old was incorporating footwork into a kick-punch combination. Perhaps because of bad luck or bad balance, the student tripped over his own feet. He fell backward — right into an exposed support pole. He hit headfirst and ended up with a concussion.
The studio did everything correctly from that point forward. Someone called 911. An incident report was written. The student’s family was told that a doctor’s note would be required before the student could return to class.
None of that stopped the parents from suing the studio. In the lawsuit, several issues were brought up. All of them provide lessons that can help us avoid the problems that this unfortunate studio was forced to weather.
First was the issue of the unwrapped support pole. A steel cylinder — or wood or whatever material you may have — in the middle of your studio is an accident waiting to happen. This school had experienced a close call several months earlier when someone fell and barely missed the pole. There was no way the owners could claim they didn’t know the pole was dangerous.
Second, the instructor teaching the class was glued to the front of the mat. She wasn’t moving around the floor. During the deposition, the family’s attorney asked her where she was when the child fell. She responded truthfully, as she should have. Ultimately, however, that added to the case against the studio. The attorney argued that the instructor, who was ostensibly responsible for the student’s safety, wasn’t in position to prevent the student from hitting the pole.
Third was the issue of long-term liability. This column previously has dealt with the health consequences associated with concussion. The complications of sustaining repetitive concussions have been studied in boxers and football players and the results widely publicized. The fact that this is now common knowledge played a role the lawsuit. The studio was judged to have known about the risk presented by the unwrapped steel pole. The school’s insurance company ended up paying a seven-figure settlement.
How can you avoid this kind of claim? Take an objective look at your studio. If you have an exposed support beam, wrap it. Basketball-pole wraps work wonderfully for this. Make sure that any wraps you buy are rated by the ASTM.
If you have a cracked tile in your entryway, guest area or bathroom, replace it. If you have a ceiling tile that’s leaking, find the source of the leak and stop it — and check for mold while you’re having that done.
None of us can fix everything at once. We can only figure out what we need to do and prioritize it. Most martial arts instructors tell me their No. 1 job is keeping students safe. Problem is, they always imagine dangers caused by other students — and not inanimate objects.
To contact Beth A. Block, send an email to [email protected] or call (800) 225-0863.
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