Feature Article - September 2011
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Maintenance: Grounds

Playgrounds: Safety & Maintenance Go Hand-in-Hand

By Dawn Klingensmith

Perhaps the most important tools a playground inspector will need are a pencil and paper, because record-keeping is the basis of an effective maintenance program. Taking note of problems and corrective actions and keeping the information on file "sounds really obvious," Norquist said, "but so many times, organizations don't keep them or they get misplaced."

Organizations with no written record of playground maintenance practices are more vulnerable should they get sued.

Of course, it's important that maintenance workers know what to look for. Most public playgrounds have designated personnel or consultants who are licensed certified playground safety inspectors. They perform playground inspections to address safety and maintenance issues and are knowledgeable about what's required for the written report.

Generally speaking, a maintenance program should consist of daily, monthly, and seasonal or yearly inspections, in accordance with national safety standards.

Even with a program in place, maintenance issues can arise and turn into safety hazards if protocols aren't followed or if the organization responsible for the playground is understaffed. The most common maintenance-related safety threats are splinters, rust, dangerous gaps, protruding bolts, and broken or missing parts, according to the National Program for Playground Safety, Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Aside from being unsightly, "Rust is bad because it's an indication an area might be getting weak," said executive director Donna Thompson. Also, kids can ingest rust that flakes off or rubs off on their hands.

The daily inspection ideally is a walkthrough to spot-check for these and other problems, and notes generally aren't taken. Unfortunately, when parks departments have a number of playgrounds to take care of, these daily inspections often are cursory drive-bys, Baker said: "You should really get out and look around. Depending on the area, people go in at night and leave hypodermic needles and a variety of other used things on the playground that you don't want kids to get their hands on. If you don't get out and walk around, you're not going to see them. So, who's going to find it? A 3-year-old."

Daily inspections are conducted mainly to address problems that might have developed overnight, such as vandalism, broken glass, displaced loose-fill surfacing, animal waste, unsafe standing water, and trip hazards and holes.

"The number-one cause of damage to playgrounds is vandalism, especially for parks and recreation playgrounds. If you have teenagers jumping on a deck and burning it with a lighter and carving things into it, and then the next day there's a deck failure, that's negligence," said Baker, who has served as an expert witness in court cases involving playground injuries.

"Swing-set seats for some reason receive an awful lot of abuse from box cutters and pocket knives," said Teri Hendy, president and owner of Site Masters Inc., a design and safety consulting company based in Cincinnati.

The vinyl seats have metal plates in them for support, and if the protective vinyl is slashed, the exposed metal becomes a safety hazard, she added.

In some areas, graffiti is a constant problem. Norquist doesn't know of any easy removal techniques, and though it's a pain, the best way to deter "tagging" is to "undo it" as soon as possible: "If you're persistent, if you keep going out and painting over it, the taggers will move on because they get discouraged that their beautiful art keeps disappearing."