Feature Article - January 2009
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Safe Havens

Building & Maintaining Safe Playgrounds

By Richard Zowie

Who Gets Hurt and How

There is certainly added incentive to make unsafe playgrounds safe and to maintain the safety in the satisfactory playgrounds once they're installed. According to NRPA, more than 200,000 playground-related injuries occur annually, while about 15 children die from injuries acquired from a playground.

Verbeck, a Certified Playground Safety Inspector, said that the safety of playground equipment is only a small part of making sure that a playground is safe for children to use. There's also the consideration of supervision, layout, diversity of play events, visual and physical accessibility, shade and drinking water. Equipment might provide padded surfaces that are safe to land on, but it doesn't mean much if a child's hands will get burned from gripping metal bars during a hot, sunny summer day.

"Most playgrounds are designed with the equipment as a central focus, which results in a limited functioning space where kids are prone to fighting and using equipment in unintended ways because there is little diversion," Verbeck said. "Unless there is a full commitment to safety by addressing more issues than just equipment guidelines and standards, assurances of safety that equipment is labeled with will never be fulfilled."

What are the most common playground injuries? Automatically, images come to mind: skinned knees and elbows, a bloody nose or, even worse, a broken limb.

According to National Electronic Injury Surveillance System-adjusted 1999 estimates, more than three-quarters of the emergency-room visits caused by injuries on playground equipment occurred on public playgrounds. Of these injuries, about 45 percent occurred at school playgrounds with 31 percent at public parks.

Purvis added that, according to these figures, the most common injuries were fractures (39 percent) followed by lacerations at 22 percent, contusions/abrasions at 20 percent and then sprains and strains at 11 percent. Three-quarters of the fractures involved the arm or hand, he explained.

In 2006, AAOS reports, almost half a million playground injuries occurred among people younger than 20. More than 177,000 injuries came from monkey bars or other climbing equipment, nearly 128,000 from swings, more than 113,000 from slides and almost 67,000 from other playground equipment.

The estimated cost for playground equipment-related injuries for this age group? $12.8 billion (not million) dollars.

How do these injuries take place? Verbeck said that most commonly it's an arm or hand fracture caused by a fall from an elevated structure.

"Any time you have an elevated structure you run the risk of an injury from a fall," Verbeck explained. "Some municipalities and schools react to this by eliminating all structures and/or recess instead of accepting the fact that children simply get into accidents, and that it is our job to lower the severity of resulting injuries through a thoughtful approach. This preserves a child's right to play."