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Feeling Heat, YMCA Reopens Saunas

Fitness: New safety procedures begin in response to concerns about health risks that had prompted closures.

October 08, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tossing in the towel, YMCA officials have reopened steam rooms and saunas they ordered "permanently" closed 3 1/2 months ago at Los Angeles-area workout centers.

"We backed off," said Larry Rosen, president and chief executive of the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles, withdrawing an administrative order that shuttered the saunas and steam rooms June 18.

The shutdown was triggered by the YMCA's concerns over the health and safety of its members, and by a sauna-sparked fire that caused $1 million damage June 4 to the Westchester YMCA.

"These facilities will not reopen ... this order will not be withdrawn," Rosen said at the time, explaining that the fire "is but the latest in a long list of problems involving these superheated environments."

But the closures left YMCA members hot under the collar. Hundreds tendered their resignations, and thousands of others signed petitions condemning the loss of the saunas.

Members of the West Los Angeles YMCA created a protest Web site. Hollywood YMCA members attracted international news coverage by picketing their branch clad only in towels.

Rosen said new safety procedures are being used at the reopened steam and sauna facilities at branches in downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Pedro, South-Central Los Angeles, Torrance and West Los Angeles.

The Downey YMCA has not yet decided whether to restore the facilities, and administrators at the Westchester branch--where fire repairs are still being made--have scrapped the sauna and steam room. "The volunteer leadership of each of the branches reminded me they are as interested in health and safety as I am," Rosen said.

He credited Hollywood YMCA leaders with setting sauna safety standards that were tried in a three-month test that started there in mid-July. The procedures are now being implemented at the other branches.

The new standards are designed to prevent workout center members from lingering too long in the 104-degree heat. They include visual inspections of the rooms every 15 minutes by staff members, and new member education materials that warn of the potential health hazards to those with such ailments as heart disease and high blood pressure.

Several of the branches have installed flashing 10-minute timer lights. Others have installed coverings over heater coils to prevent burns and accidental fires.

The fire in Westchester was caused by a towel touching a heater. Operating hours also have been altered so heaters cool down before the fitness centers close for the night. Sauna facilities at the Hollywood YMCA, for example, close at 9 p.m., two hours before the gym closes.

Member Jackson Sleet said members are pleased that the saunas have reopened. "We're still patting ourselves on the back," said Sleet, a Silver Lake teacher and actor who was among those picketing in towels. "It wasn't my nudity on TV that got them turned back on. We had close to 2,500 names on a petition. Close to 100 had quit at my Y. When they turned it back on, it was like going back to heaven."

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