Feature Article - September 2011
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Maintenance: Grounds

Playgrounds: Safety & Maintenance Go Hand-in-Hand

By Dawn Klingensmith

The monthly playground inspection Baker referred to is more thorough and includes a formal report. ASTM International and CPSC publish a playground safety audit form for monthly and yearly inspections; the list provided here is not comprehensive, but gives an idea of what an audit entails and what to look for:

  • Footings are not loose or exposed.
  • Fasteners are secure.
  • Welds are intact and free of cracks.
  • Equipment is free of rust and corrosion.
  • Wood is not splintered, cracked or otherwise deteriorated.
  • Paint is not chipping or peeling.
  • All swivels, bearings and moving parts are well-lubricated and in good shape.
  • There are no broken or missing parts.
  • There are no sharp edges or unsafe protrusions.
  • Plastic is not cut or cracked.
  • Surfacing areas are clean and their levels sufficient.
  • Benches are securely in place.

The yearly audit is a "very formal report," Baker said. Pictures are taken to document the condition of the playground. Any hazards that are discovered are given a ranking of 1 to 5, with Priority 1 hazards being the most serious. Priority 1 hazards include life-threatening conditions, such as potential entrapments or entanglements, and they must be fixed immediately.

It is mandatory in California to conduct a yearly impact test, at a cost of $3,000 to $5,000, for rubber surfacing. "There are 155,000 children injured each year on playgrounds due to falls, so you want to make sure your surfacing is up-to-date," Baker said.

However, Baker believes performing the test once every three years is sufficient where the law doesn't require more frequent testing.

Hendy and other industry professionals describe playground maintenance as "high-frequency" or "low-frequency." High-frequency maintenance duties are often routine and custodial in nature, such as sweeping walkways and leveling loose-fill surfacing, but also include such tasks as checking for potential wear points and tightening hardware.

Low-frequency maintenance requires trained personnel and includes the sort of detailed, thorough inspection performed for an annual audit.

Usage patterns affect maintenance and patrol frequency. A heavily used playground may require hourly spot checks. In some circumstances, staff on patrol isn't sufficient. "If people are coming by the busload every 15 minutes, you may need to have a full-time employee on site at all times," Hendy said.

You may be able to get away with a weekly inspection of a little-used park, but be prepared to deviate from your schedule in response to weather events.

"Be aware of changes to equipment that result from the environment," Hendy said. "If a storm comes through and a branch falls on the equipment, you take the tree branch away, but you also need to check the equipment to make sure nothing's bent or damaged."

After heavy rains, the dirt around footings can become wet and unstable. Hendy has witnessed swing set footers coming out of the ground as kids were swinging: "The swing set was literally rocking. There was this huge sucking sound as the concrete footings came out of the ground."

She has also seen kids wearing rubber boots and wading out to playground equipment in flood-like conditions. Assuming kids won't come because of rain is foolish, Hendy said. "That just makes it more fun for them."