Feature Article - January 2018
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Play It Safe

Staying Educated & Knowing Best Practices Key to Playground Safety

By Deborah L. Vence

Staff can help effectively reduce risk, too.

"Fundamentally, playground operators/owners need to understand that having the staff, the maintenance technicians, who mow, pick up and work at a playground more frequently focused on safety and safe use is a much more effective way to reduce risk and reduce potential injury to children," said Stephen Wolter, executive director of the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands, and an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies, School of Public Health, Indiana University Bloomington.

And, "While important, handbook and design standard inspections only go so far as to improve the daily safety to children when they use the playground," he said.

Park agencies, churches, schools, and importantly, risk management and insurance pools across the nation, are beginning to understand this.

"Over a dozen PMT [Playground Maintenance Technicians] trainings were offered last year nationwide from Oregon to New York, and many more are being added this year. The investment of training in on-the-ground working technicians pays off generously if and when one major injury is prevented and not reported to the media," Wolter said.

"Simply put," he added, "investing training in the maintenance technicians who see the playground most frequently so they can identify safety issues is a good bet."

Balancing Risk and Safety

To balance both risk and safety on the playground, you have to understand the hazards.

"Perceived risk gets into the 'professional judgment' arena. But always err on the side of safety and go by all of the applicable sections of the standards and guidelines that apply to what you are checking out," Burton said.

"The balance is when you look at trying to understand what risk it involves," added Mainella, who also is a visiting scholar at Clemson University and president of Fran P. Mainella Consulting LLC. "It's important to make sure that the playground has the least amount of hazards and make sure you have inspections, to make sure those hazards are taken care of and so you know what you have to repair."

But, part of the excitement on a playground is having some element where anyone from a child to an adult feels challenged, and can feel an element of risk.

"And, that is part of what encourages people to come to Yosemite National Park," she said. "To look off that edge; hike along a trail, from the north part of the Grand Canyon to the south side. [There's] risk with all of those. And so risk goes with the playground. The key is to make sure that the risk element is removed as much as possible, hazards that would cause unnecessary risk."

In Kutska's article, he states that it's important to distinguish between "risk" and "hazards" on playgrounds.

"We need to provide a variety of risk or challenge opportunities (tolerable or managed risk), but minimize exposure to hazards known to cause debilitating and life-threatening injuries. We need to recognize that 'safety' is relative," he stated. "Nothing is completely safe. Children do need to learn the consequence of activity, of experimentation, of play. Sometimes the consequence is unpleasant, whether the result is disappointment, embarrassment or physical pain. … In other words, too much safety is not necessarily good. The child's ability to experience failure in a reasonably safe environment is very important to their development."

For example, Mainella said that "[There's] excitement to climbing a ladder, to swinging 20 times in a row; any number of things are different risk elements. But, it is really making sure you have playground safety inspectors, making things good for the equipment, maintaining the property."

In Florida, "We, in the parks, come in the morning and make sure we have examined the area, and if there are any gators in that area," Mainella said, adding that it's important to make sure the alligators don't slip back in, either. You have lifeguards who put warning signs out in particular areas. "If there is water in South Florida, you have gators and other wildlife. In Texas, Louisiana, just as in the mountains, [there's] climbing, hiking along trails. You have rocks, snakes, all kinds of things. There is always that element of risk."

She also stressed the need for playgrounds to be looked after regularly, removing any tripping hazards, for example. "It has to be without the hazards," she said. "You need to understand those hazards and the element of risk that is going to take place.

"And, that's in being able to understand the hazards wherever possible, and [that there's] going to be risk in anything we do. That is part of the element of enjoyment that folks find exciting. There is a risk climbing on that type of playground equipment," she said. "With nature play, there is an element of climbing on dirt piles. There's some risk, but you have to work on the hazard removal."

What's more, Mainella said much has been done over the years to decrease the amount of injuries.

"We've done really well," she said. In particular, there has been a decrease over 30 or 40 years of people falling and striking the equipment. Playground surfacing has improved.

Similarly, in Kutska's article, he stated that there has been a change of U.S. accident data after 35-plus years of safety standards.

"In the U.S., there has been a decrease in the percent of strike-impact fatalities and almost a total elimination of head and neck entrapment deaths," he said. "There has been an increase in strangulation fatality percentages. However, it seems many of these are more about how the child is dressed and what they bring with them to the playground than the equipment entanglement hazards created by the equipment configuration or improper or inadequate inspection and maintenance practices."

And, when it comes to balancing the need for perceived risk with safety, Kutska said he has written a lot about it.

"You can't ignore knowing the causes of serious injury, and not incorporate them into the manmade environment," he said.

The important thing is to be out there doing inspections.

"How old is the playground? Is it loose-fill or unitary surfacing? What is the age of the intended user, the type of equipment?" he said. "Are you in a high-use area? Is there vandalism in the area? That tells the owner what they should consider, whatever their frequency is." And, if they are finding the same issues over and over, then they are probably not doing the maintenance often enough.

Doing maintenance and repairs shows you're taking care of things.

"That's the documentation part, routine, basic training. Go out and look for certain things. And, if they can't correct them, report it to somebody," Kutska said, adding that it's important for schools and others to be proactive, too, rather than wait for a bad accident to happen.