By Mark S. Nagel, Ed.D.
Over the past five years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of training sessions held in garages, warehouses or other buildings that were not primarily designed for exercise activities. With the increasing popularity of various training programs that utilize a subject’s body weight as the primary resistance rather than other more traditional (and expensive) exercise equipment, it makes financial sense for many trainers to pursue more cost-effective avenues to work with their clients. Unfortunately, by teaching clients in these environments, there are a variety of potential legal concerns that can arise. If you are considering training clients in “non-traditional” locations, you must be aware of your legal responsibilities.
All trainers should protect their interests by having clients sign a waiver before beginning participation in exercise activities. Among other things, the waiver should include detailed information describing the types of exercises the client will undertake, the various risks of participation and a clause eliminating the culpability of the training for client injuries sustained while participating. Waivers are an important part of any client-trainer relationship, and are a standard component of any membership application or workout pass at nearly all fitness centers. Unfortunately, the training of clients in garages is often seen as more “casual” than sessions that occur at a gym and many trainers fail to utilize waivers to inform their clients of expectations and to protect themselves from potential litigation. You should never assume that a more informal workout location precludes a client from successfully suing you for injuries that are sustained.
After a waiver has been signed and filed, carefully consider the environment in which the exercise sessions will occur. Because garages and warehouses are usually built for purposes other than exercise training, undertake an assessment to make sure the environment is safe for the various types of activities you will offer. In many cases, there may not be sufficient room for the exercises to be executed properly in a garage. In addition, adequate heat, cooling or ventilation for physical exertion may not be available in a warehouse. In any exercise environment, it is usually an expectation that bathrooms will be available and, depending on the size and scope of the exercise sessions, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards for restrooms and other areas may apply. It is your responsibility to provide a safe environment that is adequate and proper for the activities that will occur.
Assessing the environment also includes ensuring that the equipment that will be utilized is adequate and proper. There have been cases where injured clients have successfully sued trainers who have had clients utilize homemade equipment or equipment that has been significantly modified by the trainer to adapt it for use in a non-gym environment. Just because the training session may take place in a garage or a warehouse does not eliminate the need for you to utilize approved equipment and to regularly inspect the equipment for potential problems before each training session.
There are additional legal concerns that can arise in a non-gym environment, especially when trainers do not control the entire facility. For instance, most fitness centers have stretching areas, running tracks and other cardio areas for clients to utilize. However, in a warehouse environment, you might have a clearly identified and controlled area to execute various activities, but if clients wish to warm up or cool down with a light jog around the facility, they may encounter various dangers present in that type of environment. If you have invited a client to a particular site, it is your responsibility to ensure that everywhere the client may venture, from the parking lot to the main exercise area, is designed to meet the needs of the client. It will potentially be your fault if a client is injured in a warehouse from non-workout activities (such as being hit by a moving forklift) that are occurring.
Even after taking necessary precautions to limit injuries, it is essential that you retain adequate insurance. Of course, not all insurance carriers are equal in their experience, acumen and financial resources, so you need to investigate potential insurance carriers as well as necessary policies. Trainers should secure professional liability insurance that is specifically designed to cover the health and fitness industry. Though most trainers are aware of this, many policies are written to apply to a “normal” exercise setting. Conducting training sessions in a warehouse may not be covered under a typical policy. In addition, most homeowner’s liability policies are only enforced in the event of “typical” activities in the home, which would leave the trainer liable for client injuries sustained while the trainer operated a garage-based business. Specific insurance riders should be present in your liability policies to include warehouses, garages and any other non-traditional exercise settings (e.g. outdoor settings). Most insurance agents now recommend that all fitness professionals purchase an umbrella liability policy. The umbrella policy provides added coverage for all of the other insurance (e.g., auto, home and professional liability) that a person may have in place. For example, if a trainer was successfully sued and the judgment exceeded his or her professional liability coverage, the umbrella policy would cover the insurance shortfall. When purchasing an umbrella policy, be sure that it covers professional activities in a variety of potential settings.
Ultimately, every trainer should focus on making the training environment safe and effective regardless of location. Though non-traditional settings can offer special challenges, these can be alleviated if you plan ahead and remember to keep each client’s safety as your number-one priority. Home- and garage-based training sessions are likely to become more popular in the future. You can organize and conduct training sessions with confidence in these locations if you understand the unique legal aspects of these environments and you prepare accordingly.
For further information regarding the legal responsibilities of fitness professionals, please refer to the appropriate ACE manual.
Note: All personal trainers should seek legal advice before instructing clients. The information in this article is designed to provide a general overview of selected legal concerns. An attorney specializing in the fitness industry and the application of the law in the trainer’s jurisdiction (city, county, state) should be regularly consulted for specific advice.
Mark S. Nagel, Ed.D., teaches in the Sport and Entertainment Management Department at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Nagel has published extensively in a variety of areas of sport management, including law, finance and marketing. Prior to becoming a professor, Dr. Nagel worked in campus recreation and intercollegiate athletics.