Feature Article - November 2015
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Play It Right

Playground Maintenance Can Prolong Equipment Life & Prevent Injuries

By Rick Dandes

Building or renovating a public playground can be a costly line-item addition to many stretched-to-the-bone municipal recreation department budgets—particularly in smaller jurisdictions. Experts in the field suggest that even as the playground is built, or before it is in the initial proposal stage, a well-conceived maintenance plan should be created to help minimize risk and maximize the lifespan of the equipment.

Part of that plan includes buying the right kind of equipment. A playground equipment manufacturer, explained Kenneth S. Kutska, executive director, International Playground Safety Institute, "must take into consideration the behavior of children, given reasonably expected misuse, and assess their playground designs and structures from the point of view of exposure to hazard."

The elimination of a hazard such as frequency of falling from a piece of manufactured play equipment might fall to another manufacturer's product within the play space, Kutska said, "such as the surfacing supplier, but it is the responsibility of the equipment manufacturer to point out the risk of the fall."

Once the first child plays in the playground, the responsibility shifts to the owner/operator, and other than warranties, the manufacturer, supplier and installer/assembler will have moved on, Kutska noted. At that point, you need to have a maintenance plan in place.

First and foremost, said Randy Watermiller, director of product development for a Delano, Minn.-based manufacturer of commercial playground equipment, you need a basic understanding that the goal of proper playground maintenance is to ensure the safety of the users while they are at the playground. By performing maintenance on your playground at regularly scheduled intervals, you will address and remove hazards that may otherwise contribute to an injury.

"The main objective is to become proactive with your maintenance," Watermiller said. "As we know, this begins with an overall plan, and the first step there is to obtain proper training, education around playground safety and maintenance. Becoming a Certified Playground Safety Inspector will provide a great foundation and knowledge about what the standards say related to maintenance requirements."

Additionally, he continued, there are many seminars you can attend specifically related to playground maintenance. Rely upon the manufacturer or designer for information specific to maintaining their products. They are required by AS F1487 Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use to provide clear and concise inspection, maintenance and repair instructions. You will also need contact information should you need replacements parts, which should always be provided by the original manufacturer to prevent voiding the warranty.

Audit and Inspections

"Begin your process with an initial audit of your playground," Watermiller said. This will establish a baseline of compliance, and should be performed each time the standard of care is revised.

Routine maintenance inspections make sure the equipment and surfacing stays in compliance. The next steps involve creating a maintenance schedule. Establish a frequency for inspections for each playground or play structure—they will be different. Considerations that influence the frequency include use factors, materials and environmental factors.

Next, he said, "perform inspections based upon criteria from the individual maintenance documents. Pay close attention to play equipment that has moving parts. Because of the dynamic loads applied to these components, they will likely change more frequently than static or non-moving components. The third step is to record findings from the inspections."

Smith Memorial Playground at East Fairmount Park in Philadelphia was named one of the top playgrounds in the United States by Childhood Educational Zone, and James Neal, director of facilities and operations at Smith, chimed in on how he maintains the look of the park. "The maintenance of the playground equipment and our safety is a team effort and requires buy-in from all staff," Neal said. "Our visitor services assistants (VSAs) do casual sight inspections each day when opening or closing the playground."

The VSA staff, Neal said, is critical to timely observations and inspections between formal inspections by the facilities staff "because they are on the playground daily and are our first line of interaction with our visitors; they have the best and most consistent opportunity to note issues and concerns. It's most important that they make observations while we are open to notice how the equipment is being used and the popularity of key pieces of equipment. Their observations and concerns are then communicated to the facilities staff for further inspection and maintenance."

How often your maintenance crew inspects depends on how much the playground is used, noted John Damyanovich, of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). "So, if it is in a schoolyard or a preschool that is going to be used every single day, a visual inspection should be done every day. But if it is in a homeowner's association playground, one that isn't used very often, I recommend an inspection be done once a month at a minimum." Then, he paused. "Of course, it would be better to do the inspection once a week, but that becomes a cost-effectiveness issue for some playground administrators."