By Jeffrey S. Lapin, CPM®
Those of us who own or operate commercial properties (office, retail, apartment communities, industrial buildings, etc.) know that there is a direct correlation between proper maintenance procedures and the risk of physical injury. In other words, poor maintenance practices increase the likelihood that someone will be injured on our properties. Good maintenance reduces that risk.
Tenants, visitors and vendors who enter upon our properties are entitled to the presumption of safety when traversing our public spaces. They should and do expect that parking areas, lobbies, hallways, grounds, pools and the walkways that connect these elements are inspected regularly and that hazardous conditions will be prevented or discovered quickly and made safe for their intended purpose.
Performing Regular Inspections
I mention performing regular inspections first as that is job #1 for any responsible Property Manager and his/her staff. The course I teach for the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM®) is entitled Maintenance of the Physical Asset. The course stresses that the first responsibility of property management and maintenance professionals is to perform regular, comprehensive inspections of the property and to document these inspections with written checklists.
Such inspections are the only reliable way to ensure that proper preventative and corrective maintenance is occurring as scheduled. During these inspections, such items as a wet or slippery floor, tripping hazards such as potholes or broken bumper stops, items left in the path of travel like gardening tools and poorly lit walkways can and should be discovered in a reasonable period of time. These items should be noted on the inspection reports and action taken as soon as possible to remove the hazard or warn pedestrians to avoid it.
A lack of regular, documented inspections is a sure indicator of poor maintenance and risk management procedures. We simply cannot discover and effectively correct the myriad of possible hazards that can occur at a commercial property if someone who is knowledgeable does not discover or become advised of such conditions. Regular, documented inspections are the mainstay of any good property maintenance and risk management program.
Regularly Scheduled Maintenance
Another cornerstone of sound maintenance and risk management procedures is the existence of regularly scheduled maintenance of a property’s common areas. It is not sufficient to do regular inspections, note deficiencies and then file the inspection paperwork in a file drawer. In fact, the knowledge of the existence of a dangerous or improperly maintained property element, and the subsequent failure by the Property Manager to take appropriate and reasonable action to mitigate or eliminate the hazard, can often be worse than a total lack of awareness of the condition.
Whether the property owner or manager have chosen to hire “in-house” maintenance personnel to perform regular cleaning and maintenance of the common areas of a property, or these services have been “out-sourced” to a qualified third party contractor, there is a reasonable expectation by the visiting public and tenants that such maintenance is occurring regularly and that public areas are safe.
A proper maintenance and risk management program must include specific, detailed policies and procedures for each area of the property and each element within those areas. For instance, the policies for maintenance of a stone floor in the public lobby of an office building should state that the floor will be inspected at the beginning of each shift and then again each hour. Any spills discovered should be immediately cleaned up using proper tools and leaving a dry, non-slippery surface. Such inspections should be documented, including conditions found and corrective actions taken.
The policy should state that the building’s janitorial provider or in-house cleaner must prevent items from being left on the floor that might present a slip-and-fall or trip-and-fall hazard. If such hazards cannot be immediately eliminated, precautions must be taken to keep persons from that area and prevent accidents.
The specific maintenance procedures for this floor should include the periodic application of a non-slip floor finish to make it safer. A periodic test to indicate the slip resistance of a particular floor surface (known as the Coefficient of Friction or COF) is a recommended best practice in our industry.
All such policies, procedures and maintenance should be properly documented in sufficient detail to allow a third party to easily verify that the Property Manager is taking reasonable and appropriate measures to prevent an injury.
Another example of an item that is often the cause of successful liability injury claims is the apartment complex swimming pool. Many multi-unit housing complexes have a swimming pool or spa as a valuable amenity which allows the Property Manager and marketing agent to keep the units rented. Such amenities require a whole host of precautionary measures by the owner or manager to ensure safety.
First, because such amenities are a magnet to young people, most areas of the country require a fence around the pool or spa with a self-closing gate to keep curious, unattended youngsters out of the water. Tragic consequences often occur when such simple precautions are not taken. But does the responsibility for the safety of such amenities end with the installation of such a fence and gate? The obvious answer is “No”.
The fence and gate(s) must be regularly inspected and maintained as needed to ensure that these items work as intended. This too goes for the signage that should be posted in obvious places warning people that no lifeguard is on duty, advising of the depth of the pool, etc. What about life preservers? If required, these items must also be inspected and repaired/replaced as needed. And again, such inspections and maintenance must be properly documented, creating a paper trail that evidences the reasonable and industry standard procedures that are regularly occurring.
Preventative Maintenance – The Gold Standard
Property management industry best practices go well beyond discovering and correcting poor maintenance or hazardous conditions. CPM® candidates who take the IREM® Maintenance course learn that the best property management practices include a proactive attitude toward maintenance of the property. The course stresses that getting ahead of a potential or likely maintenance problem is superior in every way to reacting and performing corrective maintenance (or worse yet, deferring critical maintenance).
Proactive or preventative maintenance practices are the gold standard for property managers. Such practices include, of course, the regular comprehensive inspection and written checklist resulting therefrom. The aforementioned written Property Maintenance and Risk Management Manual, customized for each property, is the Property Manager’s guide to the policies and procedures that spell out in great detail the standards for maintenance, specifications for maintenance of each property element.
The key is the proactive nature of such policies and procedures. The best property managers do not wait for an accident to happen or a system to fail before taking action. Rather, they anticipate what can reasonably be expected to happen, based on experience and training, and they take action in advance to prevent an unfortunate outcome.
For instance, if an inspection reveals a concrete walkway with a lifted edge (common when tree roots or ground settlement raises one edge of a concrete pad), the proactive manager will immediately cordon off that area with a highly visible barrier, warning pedestrians of the hazard. He or she will then document that hazard and the actions taken and then very shortly thereafter, get someone to fix the hazard before someone trips on it. He or she will also take steps to make sure that until the hazard is removed, the barrier is inspected often and someone verifies that it remains in place and protects against accidents.
These precautions will not prevent someone from missing the highly visible barrier and tripping on the raised edge. Stuff happens. But the reasonable and proactive steps taken by the property manager, coupled with his/her written inspection results and immediate action to erect a barrier to protect the public, will give the property owner and manager a viable defense should an injury occur and a claim be filed.
Poor or insufficient maintenance results in increased risk for the property owner.
Best property management practices, such as those taught by IREM®, stress a proactive, preventative approach to maintenance of the entire property. The written Property Maintenance and Risk Management Program, customized for each property, is the property manager’s roadmap to proper maintenance of the property and all its many elements.
The cornerstone of such a program is the regular, comprehensive inspection evidenced by a written checklist and notes indicating what was found on the inspection. Immediate follow-up of any items found, especially those that present an obvious hazard to the public, is critical to mitigating risk and protecting persons and property.
If an accident occurs, the existence of a written program of regular inspections and documented follow-up can provide the property owner with a defense against injury claims, thereby reducing risk.