RISKS MADE PUBLIC: Helping Canadian Municipalities navigate the risk management landscape
Are Inflatables just a blown-up risk?
With the warm summer weather comes a variety of risks beyond sunburn and heatstroke! But one of the most common risks we see is the use of rented inflatable devices on municipal property.
Inflatables come in many entertaining forms – bounce houses, giant slides, bubble soccer, waterborne devices, and more. Regardless of the type of inflatable, there are risk management issues that should be considered before signing a rental agreement.
First, it is important to understand that while inflatables provide much fun and enjoyment, there are inherent risks to using these devices. On May 1, 2019, at a Washington State high school event, an inflatable was catapulted about 20 feet off the ground and thrown more than 240 feet, injuring 5 high school students. On October 3, 2018, a toddler suffered a catastrophic head injury causing death and his sister suffered a broken arm after winds hurled an inflatable bounce pad into the air in Lancaster County, Nebraska. And on July 1, 2018, a 3-year-old girl using a bouncy castle with a trampoline in Norfolk, UK was killed when the trampoline exploded and launched her 30 feet into the air.
These are only three of the countless incidents involving inflatable units that have taken place over the years. According to the Child Injury Prevention Alliance website, “ … the number of inflatable bouncer-related injuries treated in hospital emergency departments in the U.S. has skyrocketed, and now equals more than 30 children a day, or about one child every 45 minutes.”
Data on injuries related to inflatable use in Canada is extremely limited; however, the Government of Canada website advises: “The number of injuries associated with commercial inflatable amusement structures appear to be increasing in Canada. Injury prevention efforts should focus on standards and operator error in order to halt this rise in injuries and prevent possible fatalities.”
So how does a Municipality protect itself when accidents are bound to happen? Let’s look at the risk control process and determine what steps can be taken.
Knowing the risks of using these devices, the Municipality should first ask itself if it wants to allow them to be used on Municipal premises. Some Municipalities have taken the approach that inflatables present too many claims issues from both a frequency and severity standpoint, and as such, do not permit their use on Municipal property. If, however, banning the use of inflatables on your premises is simply not feasible, then we need to look at other options.
Ensure that the device is TSSA certified and is operated and supervised by a trained, adult professional supplied by the rental company. These individuals should be well versed in the manufacturer’s recommendations for safe operation of the unit(s), including emergency evacuation procedures in the event of inclement weather or power disruption. Be sure that all manufacturer’s guidelines are followed to the letter, especially with respect to numbers, ages and sizes of users. Take precautions to ensure power cords do not present a trip and fall hazard. If the weather (lightning, wind or rain) is acting unpredictably, shut down the unit(s) until it is safe to operate again, no exceptions.
Limit the number of children using the unit at any one time (and preferably only one at a time). If you must allow several children to use the device at once, ensure they are of similar age and size to help minimize the impact of collisions between users (this is especially important with bounce houses and bubble soccer). With respect to bubble soccer, use protective headgear (helmets) to help minimize the concussion exposure. Unfortunately helmets cannot be used in a bounce house as they can damage the inflatable, which would cause other risk issues.
Again, limit the number of children using the device at any one time, since the fewer children in the unit, the fewer that can be injured should that unit malfunction or come loose due to improper installation or unexpected precipitation and/or wind gusts. You can also limit the number of devices in use at any one time so that if an unexpected weather event or other emergency suddenly arises, you have fewer units to evacuate. Finally, remember that bystanders can also be injured by an inflatable that comes loose in a strong wind. Maintain adequate crowd control around the devices so that fewer people are in the immediate line of fire should the unit come loose.
Rental contracts for inflatable devices are notoriously one-sided when it comes to assigning responsibility for injuries that happen. It is imperative that you read the contract carefully to ensure you are not causing the Municipality to carry full responsibility for someone else’s amusement device. It is not sufficient to simply obtain a certificate of insurance from the rental company. Remember, if the Municipality is named as an additional insured on the rental company policy, the insurance coverage is triggered only by negligence on the part of the rental company. If the contract absolves the rental company of all responsibility, the coverage will not trigger for the Municipality. In addition, if you have signed a contract with a hold harmless clause in favour of the rental company, the Municipality will be responsible for any suit brought against them. We also see “limitation of liability” clauses that say the rental company cannot be held responsible for damages in excess of their liability limit, as well as clauses saying the renter must pay all legal fees for the rental company. Neither of these clauses should be accepted by the Municipality. To help ensure that liability for the operation of the device stays with the rental company, do not use municipal volunteers to operate the units or supervise their use. Always require the rental company to provide their own staff to operate and supervise use of the units.
At the end of the day, each Municipality must decide if the risks posed by inflatable devices are worth the “fun factor”. If you cannot successfully transfer liability to the rental company through appropriate contract language, a certificate of liability insurance, and staffing provided by the rental company, you should purchase a special event policy to cover this activity, otherwise you could be operating a high risk event without insurance coverage.