Do Your Certification Homework

workout - CC by lu_lu. flickr.comYour fitness center’s certification requirements should go beyond taking an employee’s word for it. Research the certifying organization and make a paper trail to help avoid client injury and litigation.

Facility owners and managers should ask, “Are the actions of my personal trainers going to land me in a lawsuit?” Client Anne Capati thought the personal trainer she hired at Crunch Gym in New York, N.Y., was an expert. However, she suffered a brain hemorrhage and subsequently died as a result of his recommendations. Her husband, Doug Hanson, filed a lawsuit that has created a stir in the industry. Hanson alleges that Crunch Gym told Capati that the trainer was certified and qualified in nutrition, but CBS News reported that her trainer “had not even finished a correspondence course in nutrition.”

Hanson’s attorney alleges that the trainer signed up for the course so he could get hired, and then never followed up. In addition, the trainer has no specialties in nutrition or weight training. The attorney claims that the trainer gave out life-threatening advice without any qualifications. Even knowing Capati had high blood pressure, the trainer suggested, in writing, diet supplements including Thermodrene, a stimulant containing ephedra.

The CBS article states that the suit exposes two fitness industry secrets. First, “certified” personal trainers are sometimes not certified. Second, and perhaps more important, it reveals that “there is no standard — national, state or otherwise — for what the word ‘certified’ means.”

This is made obvious by a cursory Internet search of “personal trainer certification.” The list contains more than 10 pages of sites offering “certifications.” Some courses are online and some require three-day workshops. Some cost as little as $70; others as much as $469. Some have online written exams; others require in-person written as well as practical exams. When Thomas Jefferson said, “all men are created equal,” it is certain that he was not talking about certified personal trainers. All certifications are not created equal.

Why should facility managers be concerned?
Fitness managers might think that, as long as the trainer is certified, they have done their due diligence and are free and clear. Not so. If the injured party can show that the manager hired a trainer who was not truly certified by a reputable agency, the facility may be found negligent and liable.

Who does the certification protect?
Many fitness professionals think that a certification protects them from liability for negligence. This is not true. Whether poorly qualified or extraordinarily qualified, a fitness professional is liable for injuries resulting from his or her own negligence. A certification can help protect the fitness center in the event the injured party alleges that the employer was negligent in hiring an unqualified individual.

Who needs certification?
Fitness managers often think of certification in terms of personal trainers and group instructors. However, other professionals should also be certified. Nutritionists need certification, as do martial arts instructors and massage therapists. Basically, if a certification is available in a field, a fitness center should require it. And remember, Crunch Gym learned that managers need to actually see the certificate (make a copy and keep it in the employee’s personnel folder). Also keep in mind one of the major points of this column: All certifications are not created equal. Do your homework — investigate the agency issuing the certificate, check on its requirements for certification and make sure it has a good reputation.

When hiring, look at the formal education of the applicant. Did he or she major in a health-related field such as health education, physical education, exercise science or nutrition? Four years of preparation in a field plus certification will generally trump a three-day workshop and exam.

By Doyice J. Cotten originally published January 2009, Fitness Management Magazine Dr. Cotten is professor emeritus in sport management at Georgia Southern University, and has a consulting business, Sport Risk Consulting. He is the coauthor of Waivers and Releases of Liability (6th ed.), which is a complete and up-to-date source of 1) state waiver laws, 2) rulings regarding waivers for adults and minors, 3) guidelines on how to write waivers (including examples) and 4) a full explanation (and examples) of a Participant Agreement. The book is available here.