Feature Article - January 2018
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Play It Safe

Staying Educated & Knowing Best Practices Key to Playground Safety

By Deborah L. Vence

Many factors go into keeping a playground safe. Quality equipment, the right surfacing (loose-fill or unitary surfacing) and routine maintenance are all essential. Even more important is for playground owners and operators to stay educated about what it really takes to maintain playgrounds, and stay updated on safety standards.

"The owners and operators for playground safety need to understand that there are standards out there that they should be aware of," said Fran Mainella, who is co-chair of the U.S. Play Coalition, and was the 16th director of the National Park Service of the United States from 2001 to 2006, the first woman to hold that position.

Kenneth Kutska, executive director of the International Playground Safety Institute LLC, in Bradenton, Fla., and a retired director of parks and planning in Wheaton, Ill., wrote an article on playground safety in 2017 that focuses on the "idea of harmonizing international playground standards as we look at where we have come from and where we appear to be headed as standard-writing organizations."

Many factors go into keeping a playground safe. Quality equipment, the right surfacing and routine maintenance are all essential.

In his article, "Proverb: The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions," which can be found at www.playgroundprofessionals.com, Kutska indicated that in North America, several documents exist that influence public playground management decisions when it comes to playground safety issues.

"One is a guideline published by a federal agency, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Another is a voluntary performance standard established by the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM), the world's largest non-government standards development organization," he stated. "Over the past 25 years, AS™ has published many more playground equipment and impact attenuating surfacing standards."

What They Need to Know

When it comes to playground safety, one of the most important things playground owners and operators need to do is to educate themselves on the best practices.

"[Playground owners and operators] need to educate themselves on what the best practices are, which I find many owners don't understand or get involved in until something unfortunate takes place," Kutska said in a recent interview.

While thousands of people have been educated over the years, not all of them maintain certification.

"Certification is only good for three years and you must retest to maintain it. Many change jobs over [the] years [and] find they no longer need it. It is a body of knowledge certification, not a job competency certification," he said. "We seem to see about 60 percent new people every class we teach. I know we have over 3,500 to 4,000 people in 50-plus courses every year since 2000."

Kutska also stressed the importance of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) handbook for playground operators.

"It's a good beginning to read and understand," Kutska said. A section in the handbook on layout and supervision in the layout covers the equipment—presenting information on what the groups or organizations designing a playground really need to think about.

Some things to consider, for example, include: Once you pick the site, you need to select the vendor and have the right kind of purchasing decisions.

Also, "Who's going to install it? It needs to be installed properly, considering drainage and other types of things," Kutska said. "So many mistakes can be made. [You have to] select the appropriate surfacing, and is the owner going to be able to maintain it? Decisions could be made based on price. What is it going to cost long-term?"

The trend has been to minimize exposure to risk, at least for schools and municipalities, he said.

In Kutska's article, he stated that "There are many organizations actively involved in promoting best practices for public playground management. Each has the children's best interest in mind. However, their approach to the myriad of issues involved, are often at opposite ends of the continuum between what a risk is and when the level of risk of harm becomes a hazard.

"I see a fine line between what is considered acceptable risk and where the risk of harm exceeds what society considers acceptable. Regardless of what side of this line you find yourself, I think we can all agree there is a need for challenging play experiences for children of all abilities," he stated. "We also can agree that challenge should not pose a risk of harm, which exceeds the balance of the benefits of risky play versus the determent of an increase in debilitating and life-threatening injuries."

Scott Burton, president of a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based company that specializes in safety services and products for playgrounds, sports fields and recreation areas, advised that playground owners and operators get a "third-party Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI), not the installer or sales rep or someone that sells parts or makes repairs, to do an 'audit', which is much more comprehensive than a standard 'inspection'.

"Someone without a vested interest is the key here, as well as 'plenty' of experience doing audits and, hopefully, some experience to draw on to make those modification recommendations," he said, suggesting that once the third party has submitted a report, to get a CPSI to make the repairs/modifications needed.

"Make sure all CPSIs are going by the most current and applicable AS™ Standards (#F1487-17, #F1292, and don't forget to use the often-overlooked #F2049-17 Playground Fencing Standard) and CPSC Guidelines (#325, 2010 version)," Burton said. "Once you get all of that done, you have transferred some of that liability to others in the field, and now you can focus on doing your frequent maintenance inspections."