Safety Standards Heading to Obstacle Course Racing?

Terrain-Race-Chicago-Cargo-After

“I know I signed a waiver, but this is still safe, right?”

I expect I am not the only person who has gone to a race, seen an obstacle and wondered how safe it really is. Was it something that looked like it had been assembled hastily, or was it something sturdy that is cleverly designed to look like it is less stable than it really is? The whole point of the sport is to get people outside of their comfort zones, but no one wants a race to end with a trip to the emergency room – not the racers, not the race directors, and certainly not the organizations that are trying to build the sport up.

Another question I find myself asking at races is “How can this obstacle possibly be insurable?” Unfortunately, as a lawyer I tend to see far too much of the world through the lenses of liability and litigation. As the sport of OCR has grown from practically nothing to a major industry in less than a decade, more participants and more dollars being spent has meant that more lawyers have gotten involved, often with the effect of making things less fun for everyone. Sorry about that.

Nevertheless, it is in the best interest of everyone involved to keep the risks of OCR in check, and to make sure that the sport challenges us, and even sometimes scares us, but that it doesn’t hurt us (at least not too much). This is why races are coming together around the idea of implementing safety standards.

For most organized events, there are industry standards about what preparations must take place to make sure the event is safe enough for everyone to enjoy and to make sure that in the event something goes wrong, the problems can be addressed quickly. Some of these precautions we take for granted: the lifeguard at the swimming pool. Others we may not even notice: your garden variety 5K will have lots of safety measures in place, even though most racers will never be aware of, say, the medical staff hanging back ready to react if someone gets hurt.

Sometimes these safety measures are put in place because local laws require them – the health code that mandates testing the water quality of a swimming pool, or a building code that requires enough fire exits for a concert venue. For other events, it can be an insurance company that mandates how much safety planning has to occur before a policy gets issued (those medics at the 5K). The regulations and insurance policies have all been developed over decades of trial and error, and people in those industries know what to expect. The organizer of the local triathlon will know that the insurance carrier requires so many water safety staff per 100 racers or medical personnel with radios every so many miles on the run course.

OCR is brand new, and therefore decades behind in developing standards that race organizers and the companies that insure their events can rely on. To make up for lost time, a number of the largest race companies approached ASTM International to put together safety guidelines. ASTM is a non-profit that brings an industry’s constituents together to agree to safety standards. These standards turn into guidelines that insurance companies and government agencies can then turn to when issuing policies, granting permits and drafting regulations, though ASTM itself goes to great lengths to make sure that they play no part in that role, in order to maintain their independence. For more on how ASTM is involved in recreational safety, you might watch this helpful cartoon.

How do the standards come to be? Interested parties are invited to draft standards. The drafts are circulated to the committee of people who have volunteered to assemble the standards, and ASTM facilitates the process. The committee then asks for comments. Based on those comments, they tweak the rules, lather, rinse, and repeat until a consensus is reached. ASTM then publishes the rules, putting them out in the world for the industry to rely on. The drafters meet twice a year, and at least very five years the rules are reviewed to make sure they work in the way the drafters hoped. Any unintended consequences get ironed out, and any previously unforeseen needs are addressed.

What does it mean for race organizers? Once the standards are agreed to, insurance companies can require that races comply with the standards in order to have policies issued. This may sound intimidating, but practically speaking it can benefit both sides. Insurance companies want to avoid risk. When they can minimize risk by requiring the insured races to implement features that will minimize potential harm, they can charge the races less for those policies.

Tough Mudder Block Ness

How deep is that water?

It’s not easy to make an explanation of insurance policies entertaining, but I’ll try with some made-up examples: if a race has water crossings on the course, that makes it more expensive to insure, because when you put people near water, there is a risk they will drown. The standards might say that, if the water is no deeper than three feet and the crossing is less than twenty feet, at least one safety monitor must be present to make sure the racers do not trip and accidentally drown (you can drown in as little as six inches of water! Lawyers worry about this!). However, if a water crossing is more than three feet deep, then the organizers need to have, say, two safety monitors at the crossing, one equipped with some kind of buoyancy life-saving device. This means getting more staff and more equipment and paying a higher premium for the riskier crossing on the course. At the same time, the race that has the shallower water crossing will pay a smaller premium, because the standards show that the crossing is less risky. The standards give the insurance companies something to work with, a technique to determine which races are bigger risks and which are smaller risks. This benefits the race organizers because, without the standards, the insurance companies would have simply categorized both races as equally risky, and they would have charged higher rates accordingly.

How do races try to work with their insurance carriers? They approach ASTM. Here’s a statement the Big Three issued:

“Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash are currently working together with other interested stakeholders in ASTM International, a globally recognized standards developer, to help formulate obstacle course racing industry standards. As industry leaders, we recognize the need to harmonize standards and provide guidelines to existing and new event producers to ensure that the industry continues to make participant safety a top priority. We invite and encourage other OCR producers, operators and safety leaders to help with this process. Anyone interested can contact ASTM International F24 Staff Manager Katerina Koperna at kkoperna@astm.org.”

When I learned that the main drivers behind the move to implement standards were the big three races, I was worried that they would draft the standards in such a way as to make it difficult for other operators to enter the market. While the big races have been great for getting OCR into the mainstream, the early days of the industry showed that the companies behind them were willing to play a little dirty (poaching race venues, etc.), and I thought the standards could discriminate against the mom-and-pop races, as well as new races that help keep innovation alive. ASTM is aware of this risk, and they told me: “having a standards development process in place is helpful to entrepreneurs and small businesses that want a seat at the table.  Our process is open to them, and anyone can submit what are called ‘negative’ votes that must be addressed before the standard is published.” The standards can help these smaller races, not only by making insurance easier to come by, but also in providing guidance in how to create a safe obstacle course. As new races popped up all over the country, the wheel got reinvented over and over again as course designers tried to figure out how to build safe course, not always successfully. If a new course designer can rely on published standards, he can build an obstacle he knows is safe. Trial and error isn’t always the best way to design an obstacle, especially when error can lead to a trip to the hospital. Finally, if a small operator doesn’t have the ability to design and build a course that meets with basic safety standards, maybe that operator shouldn’t be in the business of organizing obstacle course races.

muddy-red-deer

Defying certain death on the monkey bars

What does this mean for racers? For starters, it means safer obstacles. We all want to feel like we cheated death by pulling ourselves across the monkey bars. We don’t want to go to the hospital after an A-frame collapses . It can also mean lower race fees, if lower insurance costs get passed along to the racers. It can mean that new races aren’t as much of a gamble, as their organizers can rely on the standards as guidelines for safe obstacle construction. I worry that it might lead to some cookie-cutter standardization of obstacles, but that is something that can happen even in the absence of published standards.

The process of drafting the standards is long. What does it mean for the sport today? It means that you should get involved. Anyone can send the committee suggestions: ASTM values openness as part of the process, and the more people who get involved, the better the end product will be. An ASTM spokesman told me about the father of a hockey player who was concerned about his hockey-playing son’s safety and got involved in drafting the new standards for neck guards. People who work first hand with any product are going to understand the pros and cons even better, and this is why I would suggest that racers get involved. Elite racers, who are hoping to make a living on these courses, have even more reason to get involved, not just to offer their personal expertise, but to have an influence on making their workplace – the obstacles – a safe place.

No one wants to remove all the risk from OCR, and these standards will not prevent the cuts and scrapes that show up as pictures on social media every Monday. The standards will not prevent some more serious injuries either. While the races keep very quiet about this data, anecdotal evidence suggests that the biggest cause of race injuries is when racers take bad landings off 8- and 12-foot walls. Racers get so involved in how they are going to get to the top of the wall that they ignore the importance of a soft landing, and twisted ankles are one of the main reasons racers need medical attention. Risk and the perception of overcoming risk are at the heart of the sport – otherwise we would all be running 10Ks every weekend, right? Keeping that risk at an acceptable level, by implementing industry standards, is a good thing for us all.

Tacoma Mud Run Fire Jump

Will fire jumps still be OK? Get involved and find out.

 

Here’s ASTM’s press release on the subject:
Proposed ASTM International Standard Will Support Land-Based Obstacle Courses

ASTM International’s committee on amusement rides and devices, and its subcommittee on adventure attractions are developing a standard that will provide guidelines for building and operating obstacle racing courses. Anyone interested in helping develop this standard is welcome to join and get involved.

The obstacle course racing community has grown significantly in recent years. Designers, owners, builders, and operators could benefit from this proposed standard, currently known as the work item: “New Practice for Design, Construction, Operation, Inspection, Safety, and Maintenance of Land-Based Pedestrian Obstacle Courses” (WK54714).

The scope of this proposed standard also includes removing obvious hazardous conditions by logically applying existing standards and model codes.  Also according to its scope, this standard will not address attractions such as ropes courses or zip lines, nor will it purport to address all of the safety concerns associated with the standard’s use. (It will be the responsibility of the user of the standard to establish appropriate safety and health practices prior to use.)

This animated video shows other examples of ASTM International standards that help support safety of recreational activities.

ASTM Committee F24 on Amusement Rides and Devices Next Meeting: October 11-14, 2017, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA

Media Inquiries: Dan Bergels, tel +1.610.832.9602; dbergels@astm.org

ASTM Staff Contact: Katerina Koperna, tel. +1.610.832.9728; kkoperna@astm.org

Release #10282

March 22, 2017

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Christopher Stephens

Christopher is an attorney, a middle-of-the-pack triathlete, a marathoner, an open water swimmer, and a recovering Jeopardy contestant. A native New Yorker, he trains in the rugged wilderness of Central Park and can sometimes be found swimming in the Hudson. He also bakes pies. Delicious pies.
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