WHS and Sport: College accepts responsibility for death of football player from heatstroke

With the summer sports season approaching, the tragic death of a 19 year old college football player in the USA serves as a reminder to sporting organisations at all levels about the duty of care owed to their players.

In May 2018, the first year college football player with the University of Maryland collapsed during a team training exercise which required players to perform sprint tests. The player suffered a seizure and was later admitted into hospital suffering from heatstroke and exhaustion. Tragically, the player died from heatstroke two weeks later.

Since the player’s death, the University of Maryland has publicly admitted that it “accepts legal and moral responsibility” for the actions of its training staff who, after a preliminary investigation conducted by external investigators, were found to have failed to give the player proper medical assistance during training.

The investigation found that training staff did not appropriately follow emergency response plans in relation to heatstroke when the player collapsed at training, including taking the player’s temperature or administering treatment such as cold-water immersion.

In a written statement, the President of the University stated that the University would do everything within its power to ensure that its student-athletes were not placed in a situation where their safety and life were at foreseeable risk.

In Australia, all sporting organisations have work health and safety (WHS) duties to workers – this includes players employed by the organisation as well as volunteers. The primary duty of care under WHS legislation requires organisations), to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers. Relevantly, this primary duty includes ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, that:

  • safe systems of work are provided and maintained; and
  • the health of workers and the conditions at the workplace are monitored to prevent illness or injury to workers arising from the conduct of the business or undertaking.

For example, recognising that heat is a safety hazard in Australian workplaces, SafeWork Australia has issued “Managing the risks of working in heat” guidance material and the “Managing the work environment and facilities” Code of Practice to assist organisations to comply with their WHS obligations.

Lessons for employers

Increasingly, sporting organisations are being required to ensure the health and welfare of players – both on and off the field. For example, in 2016, Australian rules football club Essendon was convicted for failing to provide a safe workplace for players in relation to their supplements program. Further, there is now a greater focus on the mental health of players and on preventing and managing psychological risks to players.

For sporting organisations, it is essential that work health and safety procedures are adopted – in particular, ensuring that there are control measures in place to manage risks, that there are emergency response plans in place, and that staff are appropriately trained and well-equipped to respond to medical emergencies if they arise.

Shane Koelmeyer is a leading workplace relations lawyer and Director at Workplace Law. Workplace Law is a specialist law firm providing employers with legal advice, training and representation in all aspects of workplace relations, employment-related matters and WH&S.

02 9256 7500 | sydney@workplacelaw.com.au

Information provided in this blog is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Workplace Law does not accept liability for any loss or damage arising from reliance on the content of this blog.

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