Feature Article - January 2015
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Safety for the Duration

Keeping Playground Equipment & Surfaces Safe Now & in the Future

By Rick Dandes

Regular Maintenance and Inspection

Regular maintenance can reduce the unexpected, Cook said. Equipment kept in peak condition will not only look good but will also create a safer environment for children to enjoy. You really need to pay attention to maintenance. Anything that moves or has moving parts tends to wear out over time.

Because playground environments are subject to changes from use, abuse and climate, they need to be inspected on a regular basis. What does that mean? The frequency of the inspection needs to be determined by several factors, which include the age of the equipment; how much use it gets (is this a neighborhood playground, a church playground or an inner-city playground that might be used by hundreds of children every day?); the materials the equipment is made of (Is it wood? Steel? Plastic?) All of these are factors in frequency of maintenance.

"You need to think of two different types of inspections," Norquist said. "And this is what the industry will typically train to: low-frequency inspection and high-frequency inspections."

A low frequency inspection, he explained, is something that is performed every quarter or maybe a couple times a year, and it is very in-depth. "You are looking at every aspect of surfacing, looking for wear and tear. If it's a loose fill, you look at the depth to see if it's adequate. If you own a testing device you could test the surfacing for its impact attenuation." If you go to inspect and there is loose fill on the sidewalk and litter on the ground, and you see this every time you go, then you have to consider increasing the frequency of inspections or have someone else in the park or school site look for those things and take care of them.

"You are also examining all aspects of the equipment," Norquist explained, "looking for things like, is there an entanglement or a protrusion? Is there any area where a child might be entrapped? You are making sure all the use zones are adequate. Checking the equipment for structural integrity. Has there been a freeze-thaw cycle where water may have been involved and some of the metal may have been damaged? If it is wood, are there any issues with rot just below the finished grade area? If it is wood, you are looking at the top of it to see if there is any rot. Are there areas where the equipment has become damaged or had excessive wear? With excessive wear you are looking at moving components. As you can imagine and probably have witnessed, anything that moves and is used frequently tends to need to have some maintenance. I've seen areas where the chains of a swing can get worn out in just a couple of years from nonstop use. S-hooks on swings and bearings on equipment should be checked regularly for wear. That's a low frequency."

In a high-frequency inspection, you are training staff to do a quick visual inspection, and usually it is performed daily or at least on a weekly basis, depending on the amount of visitors the playground attracts. You're looking to see if anything happened to the surface that is major. Are there any sanitation issues, like the presence of debris or trash? "A lot of things happen at night on a public playground," Norquist said. "You need to look for things like bottles. And you need to look for animals. I've come across a raccoon in a trash can in the morning, and it was a frightening surprise. You're also looking for something that might have been vandalized. That's unfortunately not uncommon, particularly on a piece of playground equipment in a high-use or urban public environment. There are folks out there who take their aggression out on manmade things, and a public playground in the middle of the night can be a target."

One important point, said both Norquist and Kutska, is to keep detailed records of your inspections because that becomes a very imp ortant part of showing your due diligence and maintaining this environment that children are going to be using.