By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
On Oct. 23, an outdoor, eight-foot recreational wall at the Glacier Camp and Conference Center near Lakeside, Mont. collapsed. Seven children were sent to the hospital, one of them with a broken ankle and a broken arm.
Those familiar with nonprofit risk and recreational climbing say that, to their knowledge, the collapse of a man-made climbing wall is next to unheard of.
"This is the first time that I have heard of it, and I have been working with nonprofits for almost 30 years," said Michael Gurtler, a manager and senior consultant with Safe-Wise Consulting, a Bar Harbor, Maine-based consulting company that works with nonprofits.
Bill Zimmerman, the executive director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Climbing Wall Association, the trade association for the indoor climbing wall industry, called the incident "the first climbing wall failure in this country," to his knowledge.
The wall's collapse was due to the failure of two poles set in the ground that acted as supports for the wall's framing, said Steve Edwards, the camp's interim director. Two of Edwards' grandchildren were among those injured.
In an interview with Risk & Insurance® on Oct. 28, Edwards said that the wall was a "bouldering wall," meant for teaching lateral climbing moves. What the industry refers to as "climbing walls" run as high as 20 feet or more, and involve the use of safety ropes and trained spotters.
Edwards said that, to the best of his knowledge, the plywood panel wall was built by camp employees approximately 10 years ago.
No legal action had yet been initiated against the camp, Edwards also said, and he hoped the incident could serve as a teaching moment for other nonprofits.
THE INSURANCE HOOK
Falls from climbing and bouldering walls are low-frequency but high-severity events, Zimmerman said.
His association publishes industry training and manufacturing standards and offers general liability coverage to members of its Outdoor Education and Recreation Insurance Program through a managing general agent, Stratus Insurance Services Inc., based in American Fork, Utah. The general liability program is underwritten by the Richmond, Va.-based carrier Colony Insurance.
The Climbing Wall Association also offers workers' comp and property insurance through Stratus.
Although buffeted by price volatility in the excess and surplus markets in past years, the recreation insurance program has amassed enough premium volume to achieve stable insurance rates within the last eight years, Zimmerman said.
Nonprofits that offer climbing walls to their clients and members still have an uphill struggle to convince underwriters that the popular sport and its equipment are safe if managed properly.
"It wouldn't be as common as Little League Baseball, so when an underwriter sees a climbing wall, it gets their attention," Zimmerman said.
Familiarity with the risk tends to result in a more reasonable approach from underwriters.
"The carriers that understand nonprofits, the carriers that play in that arena ... they have got a good handle on it, and their loss-control people that inspect these facilities have a good handle on it," said Mike Cranston, a Portland, Ore.-based senior vice president for Beecher Carlson.
Greg Langan, a Mendoda Heights, Minn.-based loss-control director for Arthur J. Gallagher's broker services division, said there may also be an East-West divide in the popularity of climbing and how well acquainted nonprofit organizations are with its risks.
Gallagher works with its nonprofit and public-sector clients to drive home the importance of regular inspection of climbing-wall facilities and safety training for staff and participants, Langan also said.
"It is simply putting good practices in place," said Gurtler. "It's not rocket science. It is pretty common sense, and the stuff is out there."
November 1, 2010
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