Athletic Safety Audits – A Proactive Approach to Athletic Safety
By Chris Mathewson, Head Athletic Trainer, Ponderosa High School
I have spent the last 24 years caring for the injured athletes of Ponderosa High School. I have not necessarily seen it all – but I have seen a lot. Through the years, I have learned there are three undeniable facts of athletics:
FACT: Injuries happen; that is just part of athletics. Sprains, strains, fractures, concussions occur daily.
FACT: Athletic facilities wear out; that is just part of athletics. Grout cracks, lockers break, lights burn out daily.
FACT: Athletic equipment breaks; that is just part of athletics. Face masks get loose, helmet bladders pop, athletic mats crack and tear daily.
No program created by any athletic director, athletic trainer, or coach could change any of those above facts. What a school does to prevent those things from occurring and what a school does to address those issues when they occur is crucial.
I have developed a program that I call the “Athletic Safety Audit.” This audit is an organized and systematic series of inspections and interviews that I perform at a designated school. The specific points addressed during the safety audit, were established based on various resources including but not limited to:
- NFHS rule books
- Published recommendations
- Authoritative texts and articles
- Case reports of litigation arising from claims of negligence related to sport facility safety
- The combined professional experience and expertise of the developers of the inspection checklists
This tool will evaluate athletic facilities, athletic equipment, and athletic operations. Each of these components can create significant safety hazards for our student athletes. To have broken or worn out athletic facilities and athletic equipment can directly lead to injuries. It is all well and good to have policies and procedures related to athletic safety, but if those policies and procedures are not known by involved parties or not adhered to, those policies and procedures are merely words on paper.
Following each individual audit, I provide a detailed report to the school’s athletic director and the district athletic director, detailing what I found that needs to be addressed. The hazards are reported in order of severity.
Athletic Facilities can be defined “as any area of space that a student athlete occupies while s/he participates in his/her chosen sport.” Athletic facilities can be specific to a sport (wrestling room, tennis courts, etc.). Athletic facilities also include any shared or common areas that student athletes might use during their day (locker room, athletic training room, weight room, etc.).
Facility-related equipment is also considered when discussing athletic facilities. Facility-related equipment includes capital items such as bleachers, railings, weight machines, sound systems, scoreboards, basket lifts, gymnasium equipment and gymnastics floor anchorage systems, wrestling and gymnastics floor exercise mats and crash pads, volleyball systems, backstops, dugout fencing and fence caps, electronic timing devices for pools, diving board and starting blocks, indoor and outdoor track judge stands, and pole-vault and high-jump standards and landing mats.
Athletic equipment is any item worn or carried by a participant when taking part in a sporting event or activity. Athletic equipment includes personal protective gear (mouthpiece, football shoulder pads, etc.), team protective gear (baseball batting helmet, catcher’s mask, etc.) and participation equipment (baseballs, bats, etc.).
Equipment that does not fit properly or is in poor condition presents an increased exposure to injury. All athletic equipment must also be age-appropriate and used only for its intended purpose.
All equipment must comply with applicable standards including governing body, sports organizations, and National Operating Committee on Standards in Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) and the Athletic Equipment Managers Association (AEMA) specifications.
Athletic operations examines how things are done. Does the school employ the correct personnel to fill the various roles within the athletic department? Does the school provide appropriate and adequate training? Does the school have policies and procedures? Are the policies and procedures followed?
These requirements can be from the school or district, the athletic and activity association, or in some instances be required by state law. Many schools’ athletic departments operate under the guidance of a policy and procedure manual. In some organizations, these are known as operations manuals, department handbooks, etc.
How an athletic department operates is probably the most crucial component to athletic safety. A school can maintain a safe playing environment even if the building is 50 years old or athletic budgets have been cut by 80% or they are replacing their entire athletic department staff every year.
I am in the third year of providing this program to DCSD. To date, Douglas County, Highlands Ranch, Legend and Ponderosa have participated in the program. For this year I am currently performing the audits at Chaparral, Mountain Vista and Rock Canyon. No school has received a “perfect” score on any of their audits. Most have had 2-3 issues that need to be addressed.
While I do know that the three facts of athletics are undeniable; I am optimistic that in following the Athletic Safety Audits, each school is a little bit safer in its athletic facilities, athletic equipment and athletic operations. I commend the DCSD district leadership and each school’s athletic director to being committed to providing the safest possible environment.