Unstaffed 24 Hour Facility Access

As for-profit 24/7 fitness centers become more commonplace, community organizations are increasingly being asked by both their membership and their boards whether similar access policies can be implemented for their operations. While there are obvious benefits for members in terms of convenience, it is important to evaluate any plans for 24/7 access carefully and exhaustively.

It’s important to note that the increased risk associated with such plans comes not from the time of use directly, but rather from the challenges of maintaining adequate staffing. Specifically, allowing access to an unstaffed or under-staffed facility increases the potential for:

  • Injury to or death of members
  • Misuse or uneducated use of equipment
  • Acts of inappropriate behavior
  • Threats to personal security
  • Theft or acts of vandalism

In addition to increasing the likelihood of such incidents occurring, 24/7 access plans also run the risk of delaying any response by management and/or emergency services should an unfortunate incident occur.

Specifically, here are some of the inherent risks with these types of operations:

Swimming Pools and Spas
Swimming pools and spas present the most obvious risk potential as they would be unguarded, causing a delay in identifying and responding to incidents. Both a pool or spa, if present in the facility, should be securely locked when not fully staffed, and alarms are recommended to prevent unauthorized and unsupervised access.

Locker Rooms, Saunas and Steam Rooms
Locker rooms, saunas and steam rooms are high risk areas for slips and falls. Medical events are also common in these areas. Camera monitoring may not be feasible because of either privacy concerns, or because of wet, humid environments. Additionally, there are always concerns about inappropriate sexual activities in areas where full or partial nudity is commonplace, even when buildings are staffed and full of people. This creates both ethical and legal concerns for organizations, should such activities take place.

Fitness Equipment and Free Weight
Fitness equipment and free weight usage pose a very real injury potential, especially to someone who is unfamiliar with the equipment. This fact is reflected in current best practices—namely fully staffing fitness areas whenever they are open. Unstaffed access clearly falls well short of that recognized best-practice standard.

Unauthorized Access
Card-readers and cameras are incapable of restricting accompanying friends, people who bluff their way in with authorized users, or authorized members whose access may be currently restricted for whatever reason.

Theft and Vandalism
The potential for theft or vandalism increases greatly when there is no staff presence. Cameras may discourage criminal behavior, but they are not as effective as live bodies, nor can they directly confront or interfere with such actions. Additionally, locks or other protection for interior doors are usually considerably less robust than exterior doors—meaning they are easily defeated, especially given adequate time without supervision. Proving the identity of a thief or vandal might also be difficult unless a single user entered the building during the time when the crime could have been committed.

Incident or Injury
Should any incident or injury occur in a non-staffed environment, help is not only unavailable in the immediate area—it is unavailable anywhere in the building. It is possible that no other users are present. Will the incident happen in view of a camera? Will the monitoring entity notice in a timely fashion? Will help arrive in time? There are no such assurances. Using emergency call buttons either positioned throughout the facility, or provided directly to the users, may help, but while they can summon assistance, they are not as timely or as efficient as on-site staff. As such, anything less than adequate staffing represents a reduced standard of care.

Protecting the Organization
Protecting the organization is always a concern. A clear, strong waiver and/or assumption of risk agreement should be mandatory for each user. However, since some typical controls like staff presence are missing, legal action should be anticipated in the event of injury or incident. In addition, operating this way may make your organization vulnerable to a tax challenge, because this practice does not serve a charitable purpose and is commonly used by for-profit fitness centers.

No matter what perceived advantages extended operating hours offer, the only truly safe way to expand facility access is to provide full staff during the extended hours. That means at least two staff at all times (preferably of opposite gender), and the ratio should be increased during any anticipated surges. These staff should be well trained in all emergency procedures. High-risk areas like pools, spas, saunas, steam rooms, locker rooms, and possibly others should be closed and securely locked unless they are fully guarded/staffed.

Can a case ever be made for unstaffed access? Possibly, given the right circumstance or facility. In general, however, it is fair to say that the considerable risks involved should be weighed extremely carefully. Having taken this guidance into account, if your organization is still considering providing 24/7 access, it will be important to work through this list of questions.