Supervising Activities for Safety

Article excerpt


Liability is a prevailing concern in parks and recreation, sport, and physical education. Litigation has caused programs to be eliminated, facilities to be closed, and equipment to be banned. Although some litigation has benefited the profession by increasing awareness of potential dangers to participants, a lawsuit can wreak havoc on the programs, personnel, and reputation of an agency.

A risk management plan is an excellent means of protecting an agency from litigation. Although it cannot eliminate all lawsuits, it does demonstrate the agency's concern for the well-being of participants while reducing unnecessary risk (Peterson & Hronek, 1992). The issue of supervision should be addressed in a comprehensive risk management plan. Approximately 80 percent of claims involving programmatic situations in recreation, physical education, and sports contain supervision issues (van der Smissen, 1990). The majority of these lawsuits are based on a charge of negligence. Black's Law Dictionary (Black, 1990) defines negligence as "the omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided by those ordinary considerations...would do, or the doing of something which a reasonable and prudent man would not do" (p. 1032).


Negligence involves four elements: legal duty of care, breach of duty, proximate cause, and injury (Peterson & Hronek, 1992). In cases involving program participants, legal duty of care is generally not a point of debate. Instead, the focus is on breach of duty and proximate cause. One of the most frequent accusations in breach of duty is lack of adequate supervision (DeHaven, 1994). Thus, providing adequate supervision is a critical concern in reducing agency vulnerability.

According to Kaiser (1986), supervision involves protecting patrons from unreasonable risks of harm. This includes protection from dangerous conditions and activities. It encompasses not only occurrences during a class or activity, but also the preparation, planning, and maintenance necessary to allow the activity to proceed safely.

A common question regarding supervision is when supervision must be provided. Van der Smissen (1990) indicates that generally, when individuals engage in a program, there is a duty to supervise. The nature of the activity should also be considered. As activities become more complex, difficult, or strenuous, the possibility of injury increases. The more likely an injury is to occur, the closer the supervision should be. If an injury is foreseeable, supervision should be provided (Kaiser, 1986).


The question of how much supervision is enough is more difficult to answer because there are few established standards. The amount of supervision necessary varies depending on the number, age, skill, and experience of participants; the activity itself; the period of time participants are left unsupervised; and other factors (van der Smissen, 1990). Specific supervision (i.e., close supervision) should be provided any time instruction is provided (Kaiser, 1986; van der Smissen, 1990). Beginners of all ages need close supervision as they develop skills and knowledge of the activity. They are the most likely to be injured because they are unaware of potential dangers to themselves or others and may fail to recognize their own limitations. For the same reasons, children also need close supervision. Individuals with disabilities and senior citizens may need greater supervision in the form of lower staff:participant ratios. Proper supervision requires leading participants in an adequate warm-up, instructing them about the activity, establishing safety rules, and informing them of potential hazards (Borkowski, 1993).

As participants become more skilled and knowledgeable, the need for specific supervision decreases. Van der Smissen (1990) indicates that risk to individuals tends to result from their participatory behaviors rather than from the activity itself. …