Feature Article - January 2021
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A Safe Space

Playground Safety Basics & Beyond

By Deborah Vence

In the 1970s, a trip to the playground would likely bring hours of fun on a few of the old classics: the wooden seesaw, metal slide and jungle gym. Climbing the monkey bars and hanging upside-down was a popular activity, but there was a risk of tumbling onto the rock-hard concrete below, a type of surface you no longer see under playground equipment.

Certainly, concerns about safety have changed the landscape of playgrounds over the years, and have prompted the replacement of play elements from the past with the more common plastic play structures we see today, as well as safer surfacing underneath—resulting in fewer injuries.

What Playground Owners Should Know

For children who want to spend hours at the playground, safety is of the utmost importance, which is why playground owners and operators should keep in mind some important factors before installing playgrounds, experts say.

"Play and playground safety continue to remain top of mind for parents, and there are a variety of aspects owner-operators should consider before installation," said Tom Norquist, immediate past president, International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), Harrisburg, Pa.

For example, the various types of playground surfaces, including poured-in-place (PIP) rubber, rubber tiles, engineered wood fiber, loose fill rubber and synthetic turf systems, need to be considered. "Each option comes with its own set of benefits and considerations, so take time to research the surface that best suits your play environment needs," Norquist said.

He added that it's also important to ensure that plans for public playgrounds meet or exceed the minimum ADA requirements as outlined in the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. "IPEMA member companies are well versed in ADA compliance for both the equipment and the surfacing requirements. Keep in mind that the accessible routes to the equipment from parking lots or sidewalks are one of the most common non-compliance issues," he said. "Careful planning of unobstructed accessible routes with less than 5% slope and less than 2% cross-slope will ensure that everyone can get to the play area.

"Finally," he added, "always look for IPEMA-certified equipment. In the interest of public playground safety, IPEMA is committed to ensuring that suppliers and manufacturers meet the play industry's current and applicable AS™ and CSA standards for safety. Starting your project with the right equipment and surfacing products is an important step toward providing an exciting, yet safer playground."

Randy Watermiller, vice president of product development for a Delano, Minn.-based company that manufactures commercial playground equipment, said that in order to install playgrounds safely, owners and operators need to "be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions and specifications and use [the] manufacturer's certified installers whenever possible."

In addition, "owners/operators should make sure to check for and follow any state and local requirements that may be needed for the given project. When possible, use a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) to perform an audit after installation to verify compliance," he said.

Playground surfacing also needs to be taken into consideration. "Realistically, the surfacing you choose is one of the most important choices you will make in the process, because your ability to decrease the risk and liability of serious injuries related to falls depends on the kind of safety surface material you choose," said Darren Toomey, CEO of a full-service safety surfacing company in Driftwood, Texas.

The factors that need to be considered when determining the best playground safety surface include everything from the "playground equipment you choose to your budget, maintenance capabilities and the location of the playground. Today's surfacing options are plentiful," he said.

In terms of what playground owners and operators should keep in mind when choosing the most appropriate surface, Toomey noted that while loose-fill surfaces can be displaced and require more maintenance, they are less expensive. "So, if the playground is for a school, the concern about loose fill would be that student[s] would throw it at each other and track it into the school," he said. "If the playground is in an urban park, the concern would be dangerous hidden objects such as broken glass and hypodermic needles or even animal excrement."