Feature Article - March 2011
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Play It Safe

Improving Safety for Your Play Spaces

By Kelli Anderson

Maintaining Is the Mainstay

Then there is the safety issue of maintenance, probably the biggest challenge of all. With 40 percent of playground injuries due to failures in maintenance and non-conforming equipment, this issue is more than just academic.

When asked to identify the most common mistake most facilities and playground managers make, Watermiller's response matched the stats. "Not understanding the importance of maintaining the equipment and surfacing per the manufacturer's recommendations," he said, adding that one way to avoid that mistake is to take training from the NPSI and become a certified playground safety inspector.

Having well-trained staff who know what to look for and how to follow the recommended manufacturer's schedule for checks and repairs is certainly important. Where many fall down, however, is in factoring that practice into their budget. Paying staff to do regular checks and purchasing replacement materials when wear, tear and exposure to the environment takes their toll, takes, well, money.

"Eighty-three percent of injuries due to lack of supervision and maintenance is significant," McConkey said of one combined statistical total. "Because from a maintenance standpoint, since cost of maintenance is by the owner, it's the most challenging. Often they raise money or get grants to help with a capital purchase, but operating budgets that are downsized more and more these days affect maintenance."

Following the guidelines, logs and schedules recommended by the manufacturer should be required for every piece of equipment and will not just reduce injuries, but will reduce greater exposure to liability.

Some creative solutions, however, may include making the most of your volunteers. Because so many playground projects involve community focus groups, donations and even labor in construction, the resulting buy-in can often motivate the public to help with ongoing maintenance needs as well.

"There are organizations and communities with parks and partnerships and sometimes in those environments, where we engage the public in design and meetings to invite kids and families, they create a sense of ownership and then can use them to be their eyes and ears to help them," McConkey said. "It works successfully in pubic gardens. It's the same kind of model."

When maintenance repairs do need to be made, however, whether it's from the help of volunteers or paid staff, they need to be made quickly. "We put in wheelchair swings and you know that putting anything in a park, kids will do everything they can," Joseph said of the problems his park quickly encountered. "Kids jumped on the wheelchair swing's clip and snapped them off. We've replaced them all now, and we're in good shape."