Safety in the Gym: Specifying Equipment to Protect Users and Spectators

November 2015
Sponsored by Draper, Inc.

Continuing Education

Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this month’s Continuing Education article.

Learning Objectives - After reading this article, you will be able to:

  1. Discuss the need for player and spectator safety in gymnasiums.
  2. Identify the various components and stakeholders inside a gymnasium.
  3. Define the standards and features to consider to ensure player and spectator safety.
  4. Explain the specification and installation of gymnasium equipment.
  5. Describe green certifications for gymnasium equipment.

On a winter day in 2013, as Lori Williams sat in bleachers in a high school gymnasium in Weeping Water, Nebraska, to watch her sons’ wrestling matches, she had no idea her life was about to change forever.

A heavy retractable basketball backstop/backboard assembly swung loose, smashing into the backs of spectators sitting below.

When it was all over, four people—two children and two adults—had been injured. Williams was hurt the worst when the edge of the backboard smashed into her back, crushing vertebrae and damaging her spinal cord, leaving her with paralysis in her lower legs.

Safety in the Gym

A gymnasium environment is more complex than may be obvious at first glance. The typical gym is filled with both people and equipment, and may include:

  • Gym users
  • Facility personnel
  • Spectators
  • Basketball backstops
  • Divider curtains
  • Wall padding
  • Volleyball equipment
  • Wrestling mat lifters
  • Practice/batting cages
  • Other equipment

Gymnasiums are thought of as venues for positive activities such as fitness and athletic competitions. But gymnasiums are complex settings, and unless they are designed and equipped with safety in mind, injuries and even death can be the result.

Photo courtesy of Draper, Inc.

Gymnasiums are thought of as venues for positive activities such as fitness and athletic competitions. But gymnasiums are complex settings, and unless they are designed and equipped with safety in mind, injuries and even death can be the result.

The focus of all gymnasiums is and should be positive. Professional and serious athletes train and test themselves. Recreational users get physically fit while having fun. Spectators sit or stand to cheer on accomplishments and competitive events.

However, a gym is an inherently dangerous place. Balls, bodies, and equipment often move with great speed and force. At times, multiple sports and activities take place simultaneously in a relatively confined space. As in the case of the backboard incident, heavy equipment from one sport may be tucked away while other sports or competitions occur. All of those people inside the gym—whether using the gym or spectating—should have a reasonable expectation of personal safety in terms of the gymnasium equipment.

To ensure that level of safety, the gymnasium designer, specifier, or architect should know and understand not only the importance of safety, but also how to achieve it.

Basketball backstops can weigh thousands of pounds and tend to be located high up in the gymnasium. Unless they are secured safely, both when in use and when retracted between times of use, people below are in danger.

Photo courtesy of Draper, Inc.

Basketball backstops can weigh thousands of pounds and tend to be located high up in the gymnasium. Unless they are secured safely, both when in use and when retracted between times of use, people below are in danger.

Gymnasiums are designed to accommodate many types of sports, athletes, and spectators, either concurrently or consecutively.

Photo courtesy of Draper, Inc.

Gymnasiums are designed to accommodate many types of sports, athletes, and spectators, either concurrently or consecutively.

Standards for Manufacturers

All gymnasium equipment products are associated with vitally important standards, features, or designs to protect the safety of spectators and participants. These should be considered when choosing, specifying, adding, or replacing this type of equipment.

As an architect or specifier designing a gymnasium quickly learns, there are many manufacturers of gymnasium equipment. Care should be taken to choose the one with the highest qualifications. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Is the gymnasium equipment supplier currently active in the market? Ideally, the supplier is fully immersed in the market, and is aware of the latest standards and newest technologies.
  • Can the equipment supplier provide references in the market?As we have seen, the issue of quality and safety of gymnasium equipment is critically important. A manufacturer or supplier of equipment that can show a history of success in the market can give the architect or specifier a greater level of assurance.
  • Can the supplier provide proof of quality manufacturing?
  • In addition to references, can the manufacturer provide install locations to demonstrate firsthand the quality of its products?
  • Have the manufacturer’s clamps and fittings been tested by an independent party, in a testing lab accredited by an organization such as the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA)?
  • Is the manufacturer able to provide test reports on request?
  • The accepted standard for gymnasium equipment—D1.1 – Structural Welding Standard—has been developed by the American Welding Society (AWS).
  • Finally, does the manufacturer use Grade 5 or better hardware?To determine this, look for SAE Standard J429, also known as Type 1 for ASTM Standard A449.

Standards for Installers

In a gymnasium, where the weight and movement of human bodies stresses and tests any equipment, the quality of the installation is nearly as impactful as the quality of the manufacture.

On Sept. 4, 2015, a four-year-old girl was playing in a high school gymnasium in Gwinn, Michigan, while her mother coached a cheerleading team. During that time, a safety partition (reportedly being installed) fell over, striking the little girl. She was unresponsive after the accident and taken to the local hospital, then flown to Ann Arbor. The next day, just about a week shy of her fifth birthday, she died.

The accident that caused this child’s death drives home the point that gymnasiums are filled with not only athletes, participants, and spectators, but also massive pieces of equipment. Some of that equipment is designed for the sport, and some of it is designed for safety while playing or watching the sport.

The installation process itself brings its own set of perils. Here are the questions to ask regarding installation:

  • Can the installer provide you with job references?
  • Can the company give you installation examples so you can inspect the installer’s work for yourself?
  • Can the company provide proof of insurance in case there is an accident on the job site?

The Equipment: Safety Measures

As accidents have shown over the years, gymnasiums can be dangerous places if the equipment is not secured properly and if necessary safety equipment is not in place. Many of the injured are children or athletes in the prime of their physical lives. It is incumbent on the gymnasium architect, designer, or specifier to understand the danger and safety implications of each piece of equipment, and each strategy for keeping gym users and spectators safe.

Basketball Backstops

Basketball backstops can weigh thousands of pounds. That’s a great deal of weight hanging above people’s heads when they are in the gym. Unfortunately, there are no governing standards. There is nothing from ASTM or any other body, and there is nothing in the Uniform Building Code (UBC) that is specifically aimed at backstops or other ceiling-suspended gymnasium equipment.

Considering the amount of force glass backboards are subjected to, it’s not surprising that they are susceptible to shattering when they are not constructed properly.

Photo courtesy of Draper, Inc.

Considering the amount of force glass backboards are subjected to, it’s not surprising that they are susceptible to shattering when they are not constructed properly.

For safety in the gymnasium, however, some guidelines should be followed. First and foremost, every folding backstop should have a safety strap. Safety straps function similar to an automobile seat belt, and they prevent backboards from falling in the event of a winch or cable failure.

Safety straps come in several different forms and are available from every backstop manufacturer, as well as from other sources. Some claim to react a little faster than others. Some claim they are rated slightly heavier than others. Some may look a little better than others. Regardless of which you choose, make sure all folding backstops have a safety strap.

Backboard edge padding helps prevent serious head injury when a player jumps up and makes contact. Ideally, the edge padding is 2 inches thick and runs 15 inches up each side.

Photo courtesy of Draper, Inc.

Backboard edge padding helps prevent serious head injury when a player jumps up and makes contact. Ideally, the edge padding is 2 inches thick and runs 15 inches up each side.

Winches for Basketball Backstops

Winches should be UL listed to ensure they meet minimum standards for hoisting devices. Standard UL1340 covers power-operated hoists of the overhead type, and are intended for material-lifting service using either chain or wire rope. The standard requires a self-locking gear ratio or brake mechanism, establishes load capacities, and requires the product to be marked with its capacity.

The Problem of Shattering Backboards

A shattered glass backboard can occur when the backboard itself, and not the support structure, is taking too much of the playing load. Even though glass backboards are required to be made of tempered glass, thus limiting the size of pieces, a shattered backboard means flying glass that could potentially be stepped on or cause damage to eyes.

A concerned gymnasium designer or specifier will wonder: How can this be prevented? The solution is to transfer playing loads to the support structure, which reduces the risk of breaking glass backboards. This is accomplished with bolts through the glass backboard to the support structure directly behind the goal.

For safety purposes, this assembly is required by the National Federation of State High School Associations (High School) in Rule 1, Section 11, Article 1. It is also required by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (College) in the form of Rule 1, Section 15, Article 1.

With this assembly, manufacturers can offer limited lifetime warranties for glass backboards.

Divider curtains allow a variety of sports to be played inside a gymnasium and protect participants from errant balls.

Photo courtesy of Draper, Inc.

Divider curtains allow a variety of sports to be played inside a gymnasium and protect participants from errant balls.

The Importance of Backboard Edge Padding

Backboard edge padding is required by all sanctioning bodies, and for good reason. Backboard edge padding reduces the chances of player head injuries from jumping up and hitting his or her head on the board. To be effective, the padding must cover the bottom of the backboard and 15 inches up each side with 2-inch-thick padding.

The sanctioning bodies requiring edge padding include:

  • National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in Rule 1, Section 9, Article 1
  • National Collegiate Athletic Administration (NCAA) in Rule 1, Section 11, Article 1
  • International Basketball Association (FIBA) in Rule 2, Article 3

Note that the National Basketball Association (NBA) Rulebook does not address this issue. But, in fact, every NBA board is padded.

Although rulebooks don’t recommend the type of padding, bolt-on padding has a better attachment and lasts longer than padding that is glued into place.

Best Use of Divider Curtains

Divider curtains perform many safety and aesthetic functions in a gym. They prevent balls, and to a lesser extent people, from flying into adjacent areas, reducing the likelihood of injuries. Divider curtains also allow use of a walking track or other adjacent area(s) while basketball, volleyball, and other sports are going on.

Divider curtains should be at least 36 inches from walls. This space is required by the fire code in many areas. This provides a safer passage for people in the event of fire or other emergencies.

A generous space from walls also improves curtain fabric life. If the curtain is too close to a wall, people will pull on the fabric as they go around, causing wear and potential tears.

Dividers should be 12 inches from adjacent curtains. This creates a safer way of exiting in case of emergency without the need to go around the entire length of the curtain. If “complete closure” is desired or needed, curtains can be staggered with overlap to create the necessary bypass.

An upward-lifting gym divider curtain is a convenient and simple way to divide an area. The curtain hangs from overhead supporting steel structures. To operate, the operator simply turns a key, and the curtain unrolls as needed or rolls up for storage. This motorized folding curtain is a strong solution to dividing space.

Divider Curtain Winches and Safety Locks

Vertically lifting-style divider curtains are operated by an electric winch assembly. It’s important to note that not all curtain winches are equal in quality and durability. But quality is important because they are holding a lot of heavy vinyl material above the heads of spectators and athletes.

Unlike basketball backstop winches, UL listing for divider curtain winches is not available because gym equipment falls under standard UL1340 for hoist systems. Since the full curtain drive mechanism, including the drive shaft, spools, and cable guides, are designed to building conditions, it is not possible to obtain a blanket approval; UL Listing would require on-site inspection of each installation.

To be self-locking, dividers need a 60-to-1 or higher gear ratio.

Curtain locks work on the same principle as backstop safety straps. Curtain locks are for use with any drive-shaft-style divider curtain, such as fold-up, roll-up, or top-roll curtains. They stop the rotation of the drive shaft if its speed exceeds the preset trip point, stopping the heavy curtain and batten from falling onto people in the case of a failure. Divider curtain locks have a definite rotation direction and only work in one direction.

A temptation exists to use basketball backstop safety straps for divider curtains, but these can provide a false sense of security. The bottom batten tubes on dividers are too flexible, and when these straps only catch the ends, the center of the curtain will likely still hit the ground, injuring people below.

Backstop safety straps are only acceptable on center-rolling divider curtains, and then only if attached to the center drive tube and not to the bottom batten tube.

Another element of safety is a pulsating alarm that warns bystanders to move away from the curtain when the winch is activated. Ideally, the alarm is 80 decibels. The alarm is plugged in between the winch and power supply. An alarm can be added to almost any divider curtain at any time.

When batting cages are not spaced correctly, injuries may occur.

Photo courtesy of Draper, Inc.

When batting cages are not spaced correctly, injuries may occur.

Practice/Batting Cage Safety Guidelines

The need for safe and appropriately spaced practice and batting cage protection is clear. Without enough space between them, a cage’s netting does not have room to reach its full stretch and stop the progress of a ball coming in contact with a solid surface. This is a dangerous prospect that may result in various injuries.

Cages should be at least 24 inches away from any solid surface.

To stop a baseball or softball, netting can have openings as large as 1½ inches, but golf balls will go through 1½-inch netting. To stop golf balls, the netting openings should be ¾ of an inch. This ensures the safety of people outside multi-sport practice cages.

Corners on each end of one long side should be zippered, tied, or have hook-and-loop so it can be separated from other sides. This side can fold up on top of the frame, and multiple users could hit golf balls into the other long side—it increases the usefulness of the cage by allowing safe use by multiple people.

Batting Cage Winches and Safety Locks

A UL listing is not available for batting cage winches, which are normally identical to divider curtain winches. For batting cages, winches need either a self-locking gear ratio of 60-to-one or higher, or a brake mechanism. As with gym dividers, audible alarms provide a warning to gym users when the cage winch is in operation. These alarms provide a pulsating 80-decibel sound when the cage winch is energized.

Use of curtain locks on practice/batting cages stops the rotation of the drive shaft if the speed of the rotation exceeds the preset trip point. Curtain locks for practice cages have a definite rotation direction and only work in one direction.

It is probably more important to use a curtain lock on a practice cage than on a divider curtain because practice cages have a larger footprint, normally at least 10 feet wide and at least 55 feet long (usually 70 feet to 75 feet long), so they cover a large area on the floor. If a cage falls, there is a greater chance of someone being in the area where the cage will hit.

Safety straps can also be used on practice cages. At least three are required. In addition to locating one at each of two opposing corners, one should be placed in the center. Having only two creates a false sense of safety. The frame tube is too flexible for the entire length to be supported only from the ends; the middle of the cage will still hit the floor without a safety strap also being located in the center.

Proper Operation and Placement of Equipment Controls

Improper use of heavy gym equipment could lead to equipment damage or injury to bystanders. Only properly trained and authorized personnel should be allowed to operate gymnasium equipment.

The operator needs to make sure that areas below and around equipment being operated are clear of people and sports equipment. If necessary, have a “spotter” to help keep an eye on the area.

To secure controls and to prevent unauthorized users from operating equipment, the following safeguards should be in place. The controls:

  • Should require a key or password, or be able to be carried by an authorized user (i.e. wireless remotes).
  • Must be momentary contact, which means the user has to keep the switch in “on” position or hold a finger on the button. When the key or button is released, the equipment immediately stops.

Backboard controls should never be located below a backstop; they should be 4 to 6 feet outside of the widest point of the backstop.

For maximum protection of bystanders, divider curtain controls should be at one end of the curtain—but only if the curtain edge is at least 3 feet from the wall—so the operator can see both sides of the curtain. If this is not possible from the key location, then two people are needed to operate a curtain—one at the key switch and someone else on the other side who can notify the key operator in case the curtain needs to be stopped.


Examples of the need for gym wall padding—to ensure safety—are numerous.

In 1997, for instance, an eighth-grade student tripped while practicing basketball and ran headfirst into a gym wall, resulting in a serious neck injury. In this case, the wall was 5 feet from the boundary of the basketball court, and it was covered with a mat (of an unknown condition that was reportedly later replaced).

When paramedics arrived at the boy’s middle school in Ohio, the boy was not breathing and had no pulse. The boy was never able to breathe on his own again, and, when life support was later removed, he died.

Wall padding can make the differnce between a minor accident and a tragedy. Wall padding can be specified that does not emit harmful VOCs.

Photo courtesy of Draper, Inc.

Wall padding can make the differnce between a minor accident and a tragedy. Wall padding can be specified that does not emit harmful VOCs.

Gym Wall Padding: Recommendations

Any hard surface that participants might come in contact with during play or practice should be adequately padded to prevent serious injury.

The National Federation of State High School Association rule book reads: “There shall be at least 3 feet (and preferably 10 feet) of unobstructed space outside boundary lines.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association and other sanctioning body rulebooks have requirements and suggestions in almost the same wording.

The intent of the buffer zone is to allow athletes space to slow down before reaching the walls or other obstacles outside the area of play.

Based on the case illustrated above, 3 feet is definitely not enough, and even at 10 feet, adequate padding is needed to prevent serious injury.

A further complication comes in the form of cross-court configurations. To maximize the safety of athletes, collegiate and professional facilities are padding all hard surfaces regardless of how close they are to the court.

The tendency may be to focus all safety concerns and financial outlays for collegiate and professional players. After all, these elite athletes often bring fame and fortune to the institutions with which they are aligned, and may earn hefty compensation for themselves, their managers, and their professional team.

However, all athletes deserve the same level of protection. In fact, younger players might reasonably be expected to have less control, and be more likely to fall or fail to stop in time.


Gmax measures the shock attenuation performance of sports surfaces. Gmax is the measure of the maximum acceleration (shock) produced by an impact. Head Injury Criterion (often referred to as HIC) measures the likelihood of head injury arising from an impact.

For both Gmax and HIC, the most important thing to remember is that the lower the measures are, the better and the safer.

ASTM F2440-11 Standard Specification for Indoor Wall/Feature Padding indicates the minimum acceptable level for shock absorption:

  • Gmax: less than 200
  • HIC: less than 1,000

For the life, health, and safety of gymnasium users and athletes, and to protect all parties from liability and lawsuits, do not use any wall pad that does not meet ASTM F2440-11.


When considering safety, it’s important not to forget fire safety. Although not required in most areas, Class A-rated wall pads are almost always required in New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Tennessee.

However, in other areas, a Class A rating for wall pads may not be necessary if pads are mounted to concrete masonry unit (CMU) walls (concrete blocks, pre-fabricated concrete walls, poured-in-place concrete walls, etc.).

Wall pads must be tested as a complete unit, and not just contain Class A vinyl and/or Class A foam. Even when combined, these materials may not meet the standard.

The standards for gymnasium wall pads are:

  • NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 101 - Class A Rated
  • Testing Method is ASTM E-84/NFPA 255
  • Flame Spread ≤ 25
  • Smoke Development ≤ 450
  • NFPA 286 - Standard Method of Fire Tests for Evaluating Contribution of Wall and Ceiling Interior Finish to Room Fire Growth

According to NFPA, “Measurements in the fire test room document extent of fire growth, rate of heat release, total heat released, time to flashover, time to flame extension, total heat flux incident to the floor, upper level gas temperature, smoke obscuration, production of carbon monoxide, and emissions of other combustion gases.”

Padded poles and judges stands helps protect players.

Photo courtesy of Draper, Inc.

Padded poles and judges stands helps protect players.

Volleyball Equipment

For the safe and proper design of volleyball courts, posts need to be 36 inches outside court lines. This is required by rules for player safety.

A further way to promote player safety is to never use volleyball posts or judges stands without proper padding. Such pads need to be at least 66 inches tall.

Plus, all surfaces facing toward the court need to be padded. It is acceptable for surfaces facing away from the court to remain unpadded.

Wrestling Mat Lifters

In the vast majority of gymnasiums, especially school and college gyms, many sports and competitions need to happen at different times. Thus, certain equipment needs to be moved out of the way. Wrestling mats can be as large as 45 feet by 45 feet, and weigh one pound per square foot. Obviously, rolling up and moving such a large piece of equipment needs the help of machinery.

Ideally, gyms can store wrestling mats up off the floor with the help of a mat lifter. These may be made for single mats, double mats, or sectional mats. Storing wrestling mats in this type of equipment prevents injuries that are possible when moving them. Mats stored in mat lifters are also secure from damage or possible liability for injuries caused by people climbing on or around them.

Mats are lowered and lifted with a key switch control. Continuous straps wrap completely around the mat to stop it from falling should the sling become torn. For safety purposes, the sling capacity governs the lift capacity of the system.

While mats are heavy, the mat lifter itself could weigh about a ton, so it has to be properly designed, manufactured, and installed.

Scoreboard Fitting

In some gymnasiums, heavy scoreboards may need to be lowered or raised to change signage, perform routine service and maintenance, or make repairs. This eliminates the need to set up scaffolding or use potentially dangerous lifts or ladders. Depending on the manufacturer, systems can be designed and built that can handle very large scoreboards. All systems should include a properly sized, heavy-duty winch and one or more cable drum assemblies with safety locks.

Gymnasium equipment that rises and lowers with the help of winches eliminates the need for the use of hyraulic lifts.

Photo courtesy of Draper, Inc.

Gymnasium equipment that rises and lowers with the help of winches eliminates the need for the use of hyraulic lifts.

Routine and Preventative Maintenance

Gymnasium equipment is mechanical equipment. Much like an automobile or any other mechanical device, it needs to be maintained to ensure its continued safety.

It’s important to remember that this equipment is heavy and hangs above people’s heads.

Equipment should be inspected and serviced by a qualified individual at least once per year. This person needs to have a good understanding of how backboards, dividers, and other types of gym equipment work, and how they attach to the building.

The person doing the inspection and service should have a checklist, usually from a manufacturer, that shows what items need to checked so they have something to guide them.

Service may be necessary more often in high-use facilities. Inspection and service should be taken seriously and not put off.

Green Certifications for Gymnasium Equipment

The vinyl used for gym divider curtains—like all vinyl materials—can emit chemical compounds, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as can the vinyl, foam, and glue used to make wall padding. This can be a significant risk in a gymnasium, as excessive or certain VOCs can trigger asthma attacks or allergic reactions for some gym users. Children in particular are most affected by breathing VOCs.

Ideally, divider curtains and wall padding are certified UL GREENGUARD Gold, which is a rigorous certification and was formerly known as GREENGUARD for Children and Schools. Wall pads should be tested as a complete unit—not just the vinyl—since the glue and padding can also emit VOCs.


Gymnasium safety is typically taken for granted when it is specified, installed, operated, and maintained properly. However, when it is not up to industry or required standards, injuries and even fatal accidents can occur. Those accidents capture headlines and often bring about wide-ranging, complicated lawsuits. Therefore, the designer, architect, or specifier should understand the dangers inside a gymnasium and how to prevent injuries caused by ineffective, insufficient, or failed safety equipment.

Gymnasiums are inherently complicated and somewhat dangerous environments. Safety considerations include basketball backstops, winches to move backstops out of the way, the problem of shattering backboards, and the importance of padding on the bottom edge of backboards to prevent injury to players’ heads.

Divider curtains have an important safety function in gyms. Critical issues include where the curtains are placed, how they are operated, and the winches and other equipment involved.

Practice and batting cages need special consideration on account of high-velocity balls and athletes that can hurt players and others. Winches and safety straps play a part. In all cases of equipment operation, strategies should be used to ensure no one other than the official operator has access to controls. This could include a key, a password, or other strategies.

While wall pads will not prevent all injuries, for safety purposes the lack of wall padding, or insufficient wall padding, can place gym users in danger of injury, permanent disability, or even death. The wall padding is important, as is sufficient distance between the boundaries of a court and the wall. Ideally, according to industry standards, there is a 10-foot gap.

Fire safety should be considered, as well the use of non-toxic building materials that do not emit VOCs.

Other safety equipment and considerations include volleyball equipment, wrestling mat lifters, scoreboard lifting, and routine maintenance.

For the architect, designer, or specifier of a gym, safety issues should ideally never show up in a newspaper headline. With knowledge of gym safety, savvy specification, and maintenance of equipment, both athletes and spectators can use the gym with the expectation of personal safety they do, and should, expect.


Draper, Inc. is a Spiceland, Indiana-based manufacturer of gymnasium equipment, window coverings, and audio visual equipment. As one of the largest manufacturers of gym equipment in North America, Draper builds custom solutions for gyms of all sizes and types.


Originally published in Architectural Record