Play it Safe
Outdoor play areas constitute a major role in childhood development, but they can also be a source of injury. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year more than 200,000 playground-related emergency room visits occur for children ages 14 and younger. These injuries are usually the result of one or more of the following factors: equipment, environment, and lack of age-appropriate supervision. More specifically, the National Playground Safety Institute (NPSI) has identified the most common playground hazards, referred to as the “Dirty Dozen,” as follows (additional detail provided in the hyperlink):
- Age-inappropriate activities
- Equipment not recommended for public playgrounds
- Improper protective surfacing
- Lack of supervision
- Lack of maintenance
- Protrusion and entanglement hazards
- Insufficient equipment spacing
- Platforms with no guardrails
- Inadequate use zone
- Entrapment in openings
- Trip hazards
- Crushing, shearing, and share edge hazards
The type, scale, design, and layout of playground equipment should accommodate differences in physical size, ability, intellect, and social skills for children in the following age categories: toddlers (6 months through 2 years of age), preschool (2-5 years of age), and school-age children (5-12 years of age).
Inappropriate Playground Equipment
Equipment that is not recommended for use on public playgrounds includes but is not limited to: swinging gates, climbing ropes that are not secured on both ends, animal-figure swings, multiple occupancy swings, rope swings, and trampolines.
Because fall injuries have the potential to be life-threatening, surfacing your playgrounds with appropriately shock-absorbing material is a key risk management strategy. Surfacing manufacturers and installers can provide the critical height rating of their materials, which should be checked against the minimum required depths for your playground equipment. Some examples of what are considered acceptable and unacceptable surface materials include:
- Engineered wood fiber
- Wood chips
- Sand /pea gravel
- Synthetic /rubber tires
- Rubber mats
- Unitary surfaces (e.g., poured rubber material) play it safe
- Packed earth
Adult supervision of playgrounds ensures age-appropriate use of equipment, which helps prevent injuries. In addition, if an injury does occur, an adult can ensure first aid/medical attention is provided immediately.
A systematic preventative maintenance schedule must be developed, implemented, and enforced to prevent injuries due to worn or weathered materials. This schedule should address the following:
- Missing, broken or worn-out components
- The security of all hardware
- Signs of fatigue or deterioration on wood, metal or plastic components
- Any apparent signs of instability or loosening
- Compromised surfacing materials
- Any signs of vandalism
Documenting playground inspections helps to identify unsafe conditions. It also reduces the potential for liability should an accident still occur. Playground inspections should be:
- Completed by trained staff or professional risk managers
- Tailored to type of equipment and surfacing being inspected
- Designed to record both problems and necessary corrective actions
- Documented with an easy-to-use checklist or form based on the manufacturer’s recommendations, as well as your organization’s own policies and procedures
- Conducted with appropriate frequency, either “low” or “high.” Both categories are equally important in maintaining the safety of a playground.
- Low frequencyconsists of routine maintenance such as replacing worn “S” hooks on swings.
- High frequencyis preventative maintenance, such as monitoring the depth of wood mulch.
This category encompasses a wide variety of risk, but two common environmental hazards include excessive sun exposure and chemical exposure. Shading a playground from the sun, either through natural landscaping or manufactured sun shades, creates a cooler play area, reduces the potential for heat related illness, and also prevents playground equipment from reaching high temperatures which could cause burns.
Chemical hazards are a significant consideration as well, especially in older playgrounds. Older equipment may have been painted with lead-based paints. In addition, older playground equipment may have been constructed with pressure-treated wood with chemicals that contain arsenic to reduce damage from insects or fungi. This type of wood may also have been used as surface material for playground mulch. Playgrounds should be inspected for these types of hazards, and appropriate mitigation steps taken when they are discovered.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines specific guidelines for ensuring playgrounds are readily accessible and usable to those with disabilities. Additional, supplementary guidelines are provided by The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, otherwise known as the “Access Board”. These and other applicable guidelines should be implemented and reviewed regularly to ensure compliance.
Public Playground Risk Management Program
All organizations should consider formalizing playground safety through the development, implementation, and enforcement of a comprehensive risk management program. The program should include:
- Formalized playground safety policies
- A designated playground safety coordinator
- Documentation of all safety efforts
- Regular safety audits
- Regularly scheduled inspections and maintenance
This article was adapted from “Playing it Safe with Playground Safety” by Christopher Kittleson, originally published in Preferred Newsletter’s Spring 2022 edition, published by Public Risk Underwriters of Florida, an affiliate office of Clear Risk Solutions.
For more information regarding playground safety, please contact your risk manager or refer to the following resources. If you would like to schedule a playground inspection, or require assistance creating playground inspection checklists, safety programs, policies, or procedures, please reach out to your risk manager.