With the continuing trend towards litigation, personal trainers need to look more closely at the personal legal risks associated with their profession, their obligation to keep clients safe, and ways to reduce the chance of being named in an expensive and time-consuming legal case.
Having been involved in the health and fitness industry for more than 20 years—and being called on to act as a professional witness in many legal proceedings—I have outlined some simple tips that may save personal trainers a lot of legal pain and help protect them from future litigation.
Tip #1 – Take a Good Injury History
All PTs need to take greater steps to find out about the client’s pre-existing injuries and ensure all clients undergo a thorough medical history check prior to starting a training program.
I have serious concerns about the growth of “low supervision” based health clubs and the risks they face from new members aggravating pre-existing injuries—let alone new injuries that occur due to unsupervised exercise. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years as these clubs become more popular.
That being said, there is no greater defense that a competent fitness professional can present in an injury case than a well-documented and thorough pre-exercise history, so make sure you get all new clients to complete a well-constructed pre-exercise questionnaire and back it up with a series of questions to make sure all items are covered.
Tip #2 – Ensure Your Equipment and Area of Exercise is Safe
A real and common danger for many personal trainers is the potential for client injury due to equipment failure. One of the first questions asked after any incident involving injury is, “When was the last time the equipment was checked for safety?” This is the time the “litigation aware” personal trainer pulls out his or her up-to-date and comprehensive “equipment maintenance schedule” to look up the details of the last equipment check.
The issue of providing a safe area also has implications for trainer running outdoor sessions and “boot camp” programs. Make sure you check the area you are planning to use in your session for risks such as covered dangers (logs, sticks, etc.), broken glass, uneven surfaces and holes, poles and other obstructions, as well as obvious dangers such as other people and cyclists.
Tip #3 – Keep Good Records
In the majority of legal cases, one of the first actions of the injured person’s legal team is to request copies of any physiotherapy clinic or fitness center records. Documentation from the fitness center could include the client’s pre-injury questionnaire, the acknowledgment of informed consent to the potential risks of exercise, and the records of the client’s actual workouts and individual sessions with the personal trainer.
Probably less than half of the personal trainers on the gym floor training clients at any one time actually have a piece of paper and a pen (or an electronic device of some kind) to record the program. This lack or program recording effectively means that when the legal team for the injured client requests copies of the clients program to review, the trainer is forced to say, “I don’t take any notes.” This is not a great response.
You need to record anything and everything that happens in your sessions that may be of some future significance. DO NOT rely on your memory. It will fail you and make you appear unprofessional when cross-examined. Track the exercises you used, warm-ups completed, sets and reps, and details of any pain or issues that were mentioned in the session. You cannot be too thorough in your record-keeping. The detail and quality of your records will re-enforce your level of care and professionalism.
Tip #4 – Find a Higher Authority
One of the simplest and most effective methods to help personal trainers reduce their legal risk is to find a higher authority to allocate and deflect some of the responsibility for that client. I run multiple physiotherapy clinics inside health and fitness clubs, and not a day goes by when one of the trainers does not arrive at the clinic reception desk with a client to ask the therapist’s advice regarding the best way to handle that client’s specific injury or concern.
This is a smart strategy on the part of the trainer; the trainer has been informed of a potential injury issue and has asked advice from a higher authority—in this case one of our physiotherapists. If the trainer was right on their game, they would have also documented the details of the injury-related conversation into the client’s notes.
In all cases of injury and illness, the fitness professional needs to search out a higher medical authority to reduce their level of responsibility and improve their clients’ chances of a great outcome. It is not worth the risk for a personal trainer to take responsibility for injury management and illness.
The aim of this article is not to scare health and fitness professional out of a great and rewarding career. However, all personal trainers need to be aware that there are legal risks involved in the fitness industry. You need to understand these risks when dealing with clients each and every day.
All fitness professionals come back to a simple question when making decisions in their programs and facilities: “What would a safe and competent fitness professional do in this situation?” If you make all your decisions with this question in mind, then you are at least taking steps to reduce your legal risk. But also make sure you have adequate and comprehensive legal insurance, in case you do get named in a legal case.
- American College of Sports Medicine. (1992). ACSM Health Fitness/Facility Standards and Guidelines. 3rd Edition. Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL.
- Brooks, D. (2004). The Complete Book of Personal Training. Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL.
- Lawyer Weekly USA. (2006, April 24). Negligence Claim Against Personal Trainer Barred by Assumption of Risk. Lawyer Weekly USA.
- Riley, S. (2005, Nov/Dec) Legal and Risk Management. IDEA Trainer Success.