Use Care When Starting an Exercise Program

By: David Huber

When starting an exercise program, getting medical approval is always a good idea for those who have physical limitations or health issues. But another important consideration is the exercise equipment to be used in the program.

Dangerous Exercise Equipment

In the last 15 years, Americans have increased use of exercise equipment and facilities. While the benefits of exercise is undisputed, one unfortunate consequence is that users of exercise equipment are more often injured due to faulty, ill-designed, improperly assembled or maintained equipment. Machines common in home and at health clubs and physical therapy facilities pose serious risks, mostly overlooked because users believe, wrongly, that they are well designed, manufactured and maintained.

Since these machines and devices often involve moving weights or supporting the weight of the user, mishaps can cause serious injuries.

Faulty Design

Since the dawn of the commercialized exercise industry, gimmick and Rube Goldberg contraptions have pervaded the market. A view of late-night T.V. infomercials confirms that these machines and devices are aggressively marketed and represent a large, lucrative market. Machines designed and marketed to the home exercise segment of the market are especially susceptible to faulty design. These machines are typically manufactured overseas, based on designs that are untested or ill conceived. Our firm represented a tradesman who was injured when a cable failed on a pulley/weight machine he purchased for home exercise. When the cable failed, he suffered a back injury requiring surgery. Investigation by an expert revealed that the cable provided with the machine was not suited for the application, and it failed after 2 months of home use.

Because the market is largely unregulated and so competitive, manufacturers often skimp on materials and, in some cases, copy design features from one another to avoid expensive research and development costs. This can lead to problems such as the ones encountered by our client who suffered a low back injury while using a commonly available rowing machine design. The manufacturer copied the design from a competitor, but failed to manufacture the rowing machine so that the foot platform could pivot. The lack of freedom to pivot was well known in the exercise industry to cause injury, but the copycat manufacturer did not incorporate it.

Even relatively innocent looking and simple devices can cause serious injuries. Our firm currently represents a man using a "Swiss Ball" or inflatable exercise ball while performing physical therapy after a work injury at a large, well known physical therapy clinic. While he was lifting weights per the instructions of the physical therapist, the ball burst under him. He suffered severe fractures to both arms, resulting in permanent nerve damage. Investigation shows that the ball was not well maintained, and had been exposed to poking and scratching in the past. The manufacturer was sued because for 5 years before this ball was sold, it had been manufacturing balls that deflate slowly if punctured. The "burst-resistant", slow deflating balls were sold about the same as the ones that deflate immediately when burst.

Poor Construction

The intensely competitive market predictably results in manufacturers cutting corners on materials and construction. Missing, broken, improperly installed or unsuitable component parts are common occurrences. Occasionally, these parts fail or, when missing, eliminate important safety measures in machines that often involve heavy weights or moving parts. Because of shortcuts in design and construction, normal attention to guarding, pinch-point elimination or safety features are often omitted or improperly done.

Lack of Adequate Industry Oversight

Although the exercise equipment industry is regulated by the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), recent events have confirmed that this amounts to, in effect, little regulation at all. The CPSC is notoriously under-funded and ineffective. Manufacturers and retailers are required to self-report incidents. However, it is all too common for manufacturers and retailers to ignore their obligations and take their chances in delaying or refusing to report in order to avoid costly recalls. The CPSC website lists numerous enforcement actions where fines and penalties were in the many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Recently the CPSC, which also regulates baby cribs and similar equipment has been in the news. The Chicago Tribune recently ran a series of investigative reports regarding baby bassinets that were fatally defective. Numerous consumer complaints and reports of injuries and deaths were reportedly covered-up by manufacturers and retailers and ignored by CPSC personnel.Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office reportedly encountered resistance and delays in forcing the manufacturer to issue warnings and eventually recall the dangerous bassinets. Even after the recall, the Tribune found that the bassinets were still being sold at local retailers.

The bassinet example is illustrative of the lack of industry or governmental control and oversight. Consumers and users must be vigilant in order to stay safe while using exercise equipment.

Tips For Safe Use

The first line of defense in staying safe is prevention: Frequent inspection of equipment to identify wear, loosening components and missing or bent parts is crucial.

Additionally, proper assembly and use according to the included user manuals and assembly instruction is important. However, since these materials may be too general, lacking in detail or inadequate, common sense must be applied to each situation. If you suspect that equipment is not safe, don't use it.

Because of the nature of the home exercise equipment market, manufacturers are often difficult to identify after a problem arises. Since manufacturers are often located overseas and change ownership frequently, identifying them is crucial to making a recovery when their equipment causes injury. Keep the sales receipt, instruction manual and assembly manual for purchased equipment in a safe place for later reference.

If an injury should occur, be sure to keep the machine and all pieces, including broken parts and hardware together in a safe place. Do not attempt to repair, disassemble or reassemble the device until it has been thoroughly examined and investigated. If a lawsuit has to be filed, it is important that these things are available.