Feature Article - February 2014
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Keep an Eye on Play

Proper Maintenance Makes for Safer Playgrounds

By Joe Bush

Injuries to children from playground activity are unfortunate, and made worse when such mishaps lead to parents' lack of confidence in the playground or the removal of playground equipment.

The latter occurred in West Virginia in 2010, when lawsuits from parents forced a financially-strapped school district to preemptively remove swing sets to avoid possible future litigation. Neither accidents nor budgetary woes are uncommon, and the ultimate shame is to solve the problem by eliminating fun along with the chance of misadventure.

Annually, more than 200,000 playground accidents lead to emergency-room attention. Two-thirds are falls or related to equipment failure. To help guard against both injury and legal issues, playground operators should concentrate on what equipment and surface are purchased, how they are installed, and on a continuing basis, how the equipment and surface are maintained and inspected.

Suppliers and distributors do their part with research and manufacturing and testing and quality control practices, as well as ongoing customer support. School districts, park districts and other playground operators must take the safety baton from time of purchase.

What are the latest in equipment and surface safety requirements from quality-control organizations and the government? How often should equipment and surfaces be inspected? What maintenance should be done and how frequently?

Let's work backwards from perhaps the most important aspect of equipment and surface safety: periodic maintenance. We will assume responsible manufacturing and consumer purchasing, leaving the continual oversight a variable dependent on the end-user.

Purchased and Installed—What Now?

"An effective playground maintenance program is based on an effective playground inspection program, said John Balicki, the president of recreation planning and inspecting company John Balicki & Associates.

Balicki said inspection forms should be easy to use and specific to the types of equipment and surfacing that are installed in the playgrounds, and personnel responsible for the inspection and maintenance program should be knowledgeable in the subject of playground safety, preferably trained as a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) or trained by a CPSI.

When it's time to repair or replace, Balicki added, use only parts from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) when repairing play equipment, and do not mix surfacing products of the same type from different manufacturers. Also, it is very important, for liability reasons, to keep the manufacturer's product warranty intact.

In the unusual absence of manufacturer guidelines, plenty of safety-minded organizations offer suggestions. For instance, the Consumer Product and Safety Commission (CPSC) checklist for routine inspection and maintenance includes these items to keep a lookout for:

  • Broken equipment such as loose bolts, missing end caps, cracks, etc.
  • Broken glass and other trash
  • Cracks in plastics
  • Loose anchoring
  • Hazardous or dangerous debris
  • Insect damage
  • Problems with surfacing
  • Displaced loose-fill surfacing
  • Holes, flakes and/or buckling of unitary surfacing
  • User modifications (such as ropes tied to parts or equipment rearranged)
  • Vandalism
  • Worn, loose, damaged or missing parts
  • Wood splitting
  • Rusted or corroded metals
  • Rot

Tom Norquist, the marketing committee chairman of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) added such inspection subtleties as: in areas subject to freezing, keep a close eye on metal post caps that might be loosened and removed which may allow moisture to accumulate and eventually freeze inside the posts, leading to fracture. Also, Norquist said, special attention should be paid to review any old wooden play equipment for signs of deterioration where it meets the ground as well as all of the post tops.

Ian Proud, a research manager for a Lewisburg, Pa.-based play equipment manufacturer, said maintenance and inspection can be broken into frequency groups: high, low and in-between. High frequency includes picking up litter, tightening connections and making sure that loose surfacing is maintained. Low frequency includes annual audits and inspections by trained professionals.

The company's website says that between the two groups are duties such as touching up the paint on high-traffic equipment that's been scratched and scraped, or installing replacement swing clevises and motion bearings for preventive purposes.

Proud suggested that inspections don't always need to be complicated and time-consuming. For example, a weekly scan for corrosion and wear on points of connection, such as the chain to the swinging mechanisms on swingsets, are effective.

"You can usually see a problem from the beginning on recreational equipment of most kinds," Proud said. "A simple visual check can prevent a dire situation."