Feature Article - January 2015
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Safety for the Duration

Keeping Playground Equipment & Surfaces Safe Now & in the Future

By Rick Dandes

What to Look For

Ken Kutska, executive director, International Playground Safety Institute, literally wrote the book about playground safety, "Playground Safety Is No Accident: Developing a Public Playground Safety and Maintenance Program," and he said a knowledgeable, experienced inspector from the start should look for things that are not compliant. "Do a risk assessment and put a label on things that would otherwise be a safety concern. The number-one cause of deaths probably is entanglement. Strangulation occurs many times by things that children bring into the playground like ropes and dog leashes.

Next on Kutska's list of hazards would be head and neck entrapment, when young children, pre-school-age primarily, crawl through an opening. The body passes through but the head doesn't.

These safety hazards have been well documented, Kutska said, and manufacturers have responded by designing openings so that entrapment doesn't happen.

But there are other potential dangers in playgrounds, he said. Projections that can impale body parts like an eye, a skull or soft tissue, abdomen, and that usually happens when kids fall on things.

Sharp edges and points are pretty obvious, like a straight edge where sometimes a protective covering has been removed and children run into them. A piece of galvanized pipe where the cap is off, leaving a sharp edge can be a hazard, and can cause a laceration. Minor things should be watched for as well, such as animal excrement in the playground. "Some parks become public toilets or a place for hanging out overnight. The owner needs to be aware of these things early in the morning before kids, the regular patrons, get in there," he explained.

"Probably the number-one cause of injuries, in terms of sheer numbers and requiring medical treatment, in public and private playgrounds would be falls to the surface or onto other equipment," Kutska said. So the importance of maintaining the proper depth of loose fill or having a surface that meets the threshold requirements for impact absorption is critical.

When a person falls, Kutska noted, "we don't want the head or body to absorb the energy, we want the surface to absorb that energy. Unfortunately, because of budgets and other issues, these surfaces don't get inspected or attended to like they should, so falls are still the number-one cause of injuries, but not the cause of death, which is still entanglement."

Surface Pros and Cons

There are three types of playground surfacing categories: loose-fill surfaces, unitary surfaces, and a combination of the two, explained Jeff Mrakovich, director of surfacing products for a Middletown, Pa.-based playground surfacing manufacturer. "The most popular loose-fill surface for playgrounds is EWF (engineered wood or rubber fiber), sand, pea gravel or wood chips, because they are less expensive, do not require professional installation and give greater fall height protection at a fraction of the cost of unitary surfaces," he said.

Historically, loose-fill Impact Attenuating Surface (IAS) materials, when maintained at the appropriate depths, do provide good protection from a fall. It should not, however, be installed over hard surfaces such as asphalt or concrete. The major disadvantage of a loose material is that it is loose. It does not stay where it is placed; it requires a form of containment because it tends to scatter in high-use areas and needs to be raked and replenished periodically in order to keep the surface safe and accessible, which increases maintenance costs throughout the life cycle of the playground. Engineered wood fiber and shredded rubber fiber are the only loose-fill materials to be considered accessible to those with physical disabilities.