Date: July 2018
Playgrounds provide an excellent environment for a child to physically challenge him- or herself, as well as engage in social interaction. Children and parents regularly take advantage of public playgrounds expecting that they are safe.
Improvements in playground equipment have increased significantly during the past 40 years, driven largely by the Consumer Products Safety Commission’s (CPSC) and the American Society for Testing and Materials’ (ASTM) establishment and updating of safety standards for playground equipment. Even the best designed playground can present hazards if the equipment is improperly installed, broken, worn or vandalized.
Regular safety audits and maintenance inspections are essential tools to reduce the risk of playground accidents.
Safety Audit Versus Maintenance Inspection
A safety audit is a formal assessment of a playground’s design, layout and surface materials conducted by trained personnel. A maintenance inspection is a regularly scheduled inspection that concentrates on hazards caused by aged or damaged equipment and is typically conducted by maintenance employees.
This difference is important to note because a well-designed playground could pass a safety audit but fail a maintenance inspection. Likewise, a well-maintained playground could fail a safety audit because of inherent design flaws.
Public entities have several resources when considering a safety audit. Often companies that sell playground equipment will perform a complementary or reduced-fee playground safety audit of existing play structures to ensure current national standards are being met. Inspections are performed by certified playground safety inspectors (CPSI) who are trained professionals with the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to complete playground audits and inspections.
Maintenance inspections should be scheduled based on a number of factors, including playground use, age and condition of equipment; weather; etc. It may be determined that more frequent maintenance inspections are prudent for specific equipment or locations experiencing high usage.
These inspections should be recorded, signed and retained as confirmation of due diligence. If hazards are noted, they should be remedied as soon as possible.
Inspection checklists assist maintenance personnel to identify and track the correction of hazards. Checklists should be customized for the specific piece of equipment being inspected. The original equipment manufacturer and playground safety standard organizations, such as the CPSC, are the best source for inspection checklists.
The Dirty Dozen
The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) through its National Playground Safety Institute (NPSI) has identified 12 of the leading causes of injuries on playgrounds. The “Dirty Dozen” include:
- Improper Protective Surfacing—Acceptable surfaces include hardwood fiber/mulch, sand, pea gravel and shredded rubber. Surfaces must be maintained at a depth of 12 inches and not become compacted. Synthetic or rubber tiles and mats may also be used under play equipment.
- Inadequate Fall Zone—A fall zone is the area under and around equipment where a child might fall. A use zone should be covered with protective surfacing material and extend a minimum of 6 feet in all directions from the edge of stationary play equipment, such as climbers and chin-up bars.
- Protrusion or Entanglement Hazards—These are capable of impaling or cutting a child, or capable of catching strings or items of clothing that might be worn around a child’s neck. Ropes should not be capable of forming a loop or noose.
- Entrapment In Openings—Children often enter openings feet first and attempt to slide through an opening. If the opening is not large enough, it may allow the body to pass through but entrap the head.
- Insufficient Equipment Spacing—Equipment should provide room for children to circulate and prevent the possibility of a child falling off one structure and striking another structure. Swings and moving equipment should be located in an area away from other structures.
- Trip Hazards—Exposed concrete footings, containment borders, tree roots and abrupt changes in surface elevations are common trips hazards.
- Lack of Supervision—A play area should be designed so that it is easy for a parent or caregiver to observe children at play.
- Age-inappropriate Activities—Areas for pre-school age children should be separate from areas intended for school age children.
- Lack of Maintenance—A program of systematic, preventive maintenance must be present.
- Pinch, Crush, Shearing And Sharp Edge Hazards—Components in the play environment should not have sharp edges that could cut skin. Moving parts should be checked for the potential of crushing or pinching a child’s finger.
- Platforms with No Guardrails—Elevated surfaces should have guardrails that prevent accidental falls.
- Equipment Not Recommended for Public Playgrounds—Heavy animal figure swings, multiple occupancy/glider type swings, exercise swings and trapeze bars are among the equipment not recommended for public playgrounds.
Minnesota’s park and recreation immunities reduce a public entity’s liability for playground injuries by providing a defense for a claim; however, they do not prevent a lawsuit from being filed. The MCIT resource Immunities for Park and Recreation Areas provides a more detailed explanation of these immunities and how they may apply.
The defense of a lawsuit can be expensive and consume a great deal of time and energy of the public entity. A successful defense is most likely when safety audits and maintenance inspections are performed on a regular basis and are well-documented.
Additional Information Sources
MCIT loss control consultants are available to assist members review overall playground safety including on-site visits. For this service, contact MCIT toll-free at 1.866.547.6516. The 35-minute DVD “Inspecting Playgrounds for Hazards” is available for check out from MCIT.org/video-library/.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) Handbook for Public Playground Safety presents safety information for public playground equipment in the form of guidelines at CPSC.gov.
The National Program for Playground Safety promotes the latest public playground industry standards and guidelines as the most desirable standard of care for public-use playgrounds; see PlaygroundSafety.org.