Guest Column - May 2022
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inPERSPECTIVE / PLAYGROUNDS

Play Area Evolution
Keeping Safety at the Forefront

By Laura Miele, Ph.D.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency departments treat more than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger for playground-related injuries in the United States each year. Statistically, playground injuries of most significance were falls, close to 75% of nonfatal injuries related to playground equipment occur on public playgrounds, and most incidents occur at schools and day care centers.

Years ago, there was a variety of playground equipment questioned for its safety. Park and recreational associations and AS™ International have since created standards and guidelines to assist with the prevention of serious injury or death. Newer and safer practices such as attenuating ground surfaces, new height regulations and a myriad of other items were created to potentially make playgrounds a bit safer.

As time has passed, playgrounds have evolved. Today, there are various adventure challenge courses that have features incorporating climbing rocks, ropes and other all-in-one components. They can be found within playground systems in schools and other outdoor playgrounds. These features seem to be a "hybrid" of climbing rocks/boulders and challenge ropes course elements. They fall between classifications of challenge courses and various other elements—not specifically traditional "playground" equipment.

Like many other recreational areas, the equipment is being manufactured so quickly that the regulatory standards cannot keep up, leaving a gap in safe practices. Newer playgrounds are adding "ninja" course-like equipment. This equipment needs to be properly analyzed.

Risk analysis is imperative when creating new equipment. There is a reason that there are attenuating surfaces under the playground apparatus. There is a reason there are railings and specific height limitations. Manufacturers still have a responsibility to inform the consumer of the proper use of the equipment by providing detailed information. This information should provide the age, intended uses and proper installation, inspection and maintenance information.

In a typical playground setting, minimal supervision is required so that a teacher or monitor can oversee the children playing in their class. Playgrounds are designed that way as it is foreseeable that multiple children will be utilizing the equipment. With "hybrid" equipment, teacher supervision is paramount. If this equipment is placed in a public area outside of the school setting, there should be warnings and age-appropriate signage.

Risk Management

When a manufacturer, builder or designer constructs a project, they have a duty to conduct a safety audit to determine the hazards and dangerous conditions that could exist and then find solutions to mitigate those hazards. This is standard. During the planning phase of equipment design, it is important for manufacturers and builders, and owners and operators to understand how the participants will interact with the features. The design must meet the needs of the intended users. There needs to be a foreseeability factor in the way children will interact with the equipment, with mitigation of whatever hazards or unsafe activities children may attempt.

Once equipment is installed, it should be properly inspected. Proper maintenance and inspections should be conducted in a timely fashion, based on manufacturer's instructions, to ensure that this equipment will be safe over time.

The manufacturers of new hybrid playground equipment should provide owners and operators with the proper instructions for equipment use.

Playground safety is not just about design and construction, it is about the safe practices that are applicable to decrease the risk of incidents. Schools and children cannot be expected to appreciate the dangers if they are not properly informed. It is up to manufacturers and supervising adults to determine the proper safety measures that will help to decrease the risk of injury.

Playground equipment and hybrid equipment still fall under best and safe industry practices. New equipment that does not have specific regulatory standards is not immune to this. Safety is universal. Everyone involved in the manufacture, installation and ownership of the equipment is liable for its uses. The best way to mitigate is through safety and risk analysis.

Safety

The main take-home is that when designing new play equipment, it is crucial to frequently revisit and follow the various guidelines and industry standards that are applicable to the equipment. It is not a one-size-fits-all in terms of safe practices with the newer equipment that is manufactured. Safety must always be at the forefront. RM



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Miele, Ph.D., has more than 25 years of experience in the sport, fitness, recreation and education industry. She is the owner of Miele Forensic Consulting, where she provides expert consulting, inspections, technical analysis and testimony in commercial and personal litigation.