Feature Article - January 2017
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Encourage Risk, But Safely

Playground Safety From Concept to Completion and Beyond

By Dave Ramont

As the saying goes, kids will be kids. And as much as we'd like to, we can't always protect them from themselves—including on the playground. Around 190,000 playground accidents occur each year that require emergency hospital visits. Children aged 5 to 9 have the highest injury rate, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who also tell us that approximately 45 percent of these injuries are severe. But there are things that playground designers, manufacturers, installers, park personnel and parents can do to help reduce the risk of accidents while still keeping playgrounds challenging and fun for kids.

Ken Kutska is executive director of the International Playground Safety Institute, a member of various American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) subcommittees, and a founding member of the US Play Coalition. He's written extensively on playground safety, including co-authoring Playground Safety Is No Accident: Developing a Public Playground Safety and Maintenance Program. He tells us that "Playground owners, designers and manufacturers need to become more vigilant in their own risk assessment early on in the process of creating a safe but challenging play area for children. Children will continue to use equipment in unintended ways, and much of this can be considered foreseeable. We all must become more informed on all issues related to child development needs and more knowledgeable in the area of injury prevention."

Kutska added that while we can't prevent all injuries, we need to understand the causes of serious to severe injuries and death. "The number one challenge facing this industry is the lack of adequate and informed maintenance of these important child development facilities," he said. "Building these places is important, but maintaining them throughout their functional life is even more important to injury prevention."

Maintenance Matters

In fact, it's estimated that more than one-third of all playground injuries are due to poor maintenance. Parks, schools and municipalities should regularly inspect and maintain equipment throughout the year, looking to identify any rust, corrosion or loosening of parts. Snow, rain, temperature extremes, insects and even high winds can damage equipment, as well as heavy use and abuse. The most popular equipment can deteriorate quickly. Parks may want to use an outside consultant to do their inspections. Some organizations, such as the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), offer training for Certified Playground Safety Inspectors. And since brands and types of playground equipment can be significantly different, park managers should make sure that equipment follows U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and ASTM guidelines.

Around 190,000 playground accidents occur each year that require emergency hospital visits.

Many manufacturers offer detailed instructions and recommendations for installation and maintenance. In their Playguide Bulletin Number Five, Landscape Structures, a playground equipment manufacturer, tells us that inspections should be thorough. For example, instead of saying "Check swing hanger for excessive wear," a maintenance checklist should read "Replace swing hanger when worn to 50 percent of original diameter."

Inspections can also help identify hazards from equipment that was improperly designed or installed. The guide also suggests keeping maintenance records, which can be important if a facility is faced with a possible lawsuit: who did the inspections, when were they performed, what were the results, and what repairs were made.