Feature Article - October 2002
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Playing It Safe

A guide to playground diligence and maintenance

By Stacy St. Clair


You've spent hours pouring over the latest safety recommendations. You followed the Consumer Production Safety Commission guidelines as if they were Gospel.

Now the top-of-line equipment has been installed. The structure has been checked—and rechecked—to ensure things are bolted and fastened properly.

You've done everything within your power to ensure the safest play structure available.

Your work here is done, right?

Nope. Not even close.

Providing a safe play structure is a responsibility that will last as long as the structure does. Such care requires constant maintenance and vigilance. And to do it properly, supervisors must dedicate more employee attention to the equipment.

"It's not that hard," says Steve King, chairman of an American Society for Testing and Materials task force charged with setting playground industry guidelines. "But most still don't want to do it. They don't have the time or inclination."

A dangerous playground, however, can end up costing more than just a few man-hours. In today's litigious society, play structures often find themselves the focus of lawsuits.

The best way to avoid legal headaches, of course, is to prevent them. Here are four steps to keeping a safe playground.

1. Surfacing

Find a injured child on a playground, and chances are they hurt themselves falling off the equipment.

Playgrounds must be safe for users of all ages
and abilities.

"It's the first thing we see in a lawsuit," says King, a certified playground safety inspector and chairman of a major playground equipment manufacturing company.

Roughly 60 percent of all playground injuries result from a fall from structures. The numbers were even higher a few decades ago, when an unplanned drop from the monkey bars could find a child thudding onto grass or, even worse, blacktop.

The playground industry, however, has greatly reduced the chances of injury with various types of shock-absorbing surfaces. The Iowa-based National Program for Playground Safety highly recommends several loose-fill materials or synthetic surfaces.

Acceptable loose-fill materials include hardwood fiber chips, mulch, pea gravel, sand and shredded rubber. Loose fill has become the most popular surface on American playgrounds because of its relatively low cost.

"They don't consider all factors," King says. "They want the cheapest thing available."

Loose-fill materials, without question, are the most inexpensive option. But they're also—at least in theory—the surface requiring the most maintenance.

Playground caretakers should check the play area regularly to ensure its spread evenly. Heavy playground traffic never fails to redistribute the surfacing, leaving dangerous bald spots that provide little cushion to falling children.

Experts recommend the surface—which should extend a minimum of six feet in all directions from the edge of stationary playground equipment—be raked daily. They must regularly be inspected for sharp objects such as glass, can tops and jagged rocks.

Loads of loose material also may need to be trucked in once a year to make sure the appropriate depth is maintained.

Loose-fill surfaces should be maintained to a depth proportionate to the structure's height. The equipment manufacturer can provide the exact proportions, but a general guideline is a 12-inch depth for equipment eight feet or lower.

Manufacturers also should provide testing results to indicate the proper depth for synthetic surfacing, a typically more expensive option that includes rubber tiles, rubber mats or synthetically poured surfaces. Though they require less maintenance than their loose-fill counterparts, synthetic materials should regularly be checked for gouges, burns and loose areas. They also should be swept daily to prevent sand, dirt and rocks from becoming a slipping hazard.