Building & Maintaining Safe Playgrounds
By Richard Zowie
obody wants to hear that a child has been injured at a playground—whether you're the parent or the person in charge of the site. Many questions will be asked, analyzed and answered. Could the injury have been avoided? Was something missed during the planning process? Was the equipment faulty? Did the construction crew make a mistake during installation? Did someone fail to perform preventive maintenance?
When it comes to making playgrounds safe, much thought goes into both building them safely and keeping them safely, as well as taking into consideration the materials to be used. For everyone involved, keeping children safe while they have some fun is the number-one priority.
The safety process begins with planning, developing and constructing the playground. After all, if it's not built correctly and safely, it should never be approved for use. A playground that's unsafe to use is useless.
A useless, unsafe playground can indeed result in disaster. In 2004, the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) rated each state on playground safety and gave an average grade of C+. For many students, a C+ is the type of grade that can make it difficult to get into a good college.
The NPPS reported that 15 percent of playground injuries were severe, with the most common injury—at 39 percent—being fractures (most involving the wrist, elbow or lower arm).
Over the years, the standards for playground safety have certainly evolved. It can certainly be said that today's playground isn't your father's. David Verbeck, a former New York City playground inspector, who's the founder of Honolulu, Hawaii-based Grassroots Playscapes, which designs customized play spaces, said that playground safety first started becoming a major issue in America when changes started taking place in the way children were cared for.
"Playground safety came hand-in-hand with a growing trend to have children in institutional forms of care," he said, pointing out the rise in day care and after-school programs and how they contrast with the traditional ways children have been raised. "Children generally invent their own play, but when they are not able to have access to their own neighborhood or surrounding environment because parents are too busy or worried for their safety, they are delegated to contained environments."
He noted that when playground manufacturers saw this as a growing market back in the 1980s, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) started to issue guidelines and standards. However, it wasn't until the mid to late '90s that playground safety became an emphasized issue. With that emphasis came sweeping changes. Gone were playgrounds that had lasted many generations, and in were commercial structures that reduced the risk of liability—whether it was a public or privately owned playground.
"Ironically—or rather predictably—there is very little data available to substantiate liability risk since courts actually see very few cases," Verbeck said. "Much like our notion of crime…it's the sensational cases we base our fears upon."
Playgrounds, coincidentally, originally developed as a place to separate children from adult traffic out of a concern for their safety, said John Purvis, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. He noted that in 1974, those concerned about playground safety petitioned the CPSC to recommend safety standards for play equipment. The results were surveys that revealed something disturbing: Playground equipment was among the most hazardous consumer products.
As a result, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) began developing playground equipment standards.
"The National Recreation and Park Association subsequently accepted a call that was made for the development of standards for playground equipment," Purvis said. "Testing protocols were established and by 1978, major reports were received regarding both playground equipment and impact attenuation. This led to the formation of the National Playground Safety Institute, which now provides training and certification for playground safety inspectors."
There is certainly added incentive to make unsafe playgrounds safe and to maintain the safety in the satisfactory playgrounds once they're installed. According to NRPA, more than 200,000 playground-related injuries occur annually, while about 15 children die from injuries acquired from a playground.
Verbeck, a Certified Playground Safety Inspector, said that the safety of playground equipment is only a small part of making sure that a playground is safe for children to use. There's also the consideration of supervision, layout, diversity of play events, visual and physical accessibility, shade and drinking water. Equipment might provide padded surfaces that are safe to land on, but it doesn't mean much if a child's hands will get burned from gripping metal bars during a hot, sunny summer day.
"Most playgrounds are designed with the equipment as a central focus, which results in a limited functioning space where kids are prone to fighting and using equipment in unintended ways because there is little diversion," Verbeck said. "Unless there is a full commitment to safety by addressing more issues than just equipment guidelines and standards, assurances of safety that equipment is labeled with will never be fulfilled."
What are the most common playground injuries? Automatically, images come to mind: skinned knees and elbows, a bloody nose or, even worse, a broken limb.
According to National Electronic Injury Surveillance System-adjusted 1999 estimates, more than three-quarters of the emergency-room visits caused by injuries on playground equipment occurred on public playgrounds. Of these injuries, about 45 percent occurred at school playgrounds with 31 percent at public parks.
Purvis added that, according to these figures, the most common injuries were fractures (39 percent) followed by lacerations at 22 percent, contusions/abrasions at 20 percent and then sprains and strains at 11 percent. Three-quarters of the fractures involved the arm or hand, he explained.
In 2006, AAOS reports, almost half a million playground injuries occurred among people younger than 20. More than 177,000 injuries came from monkey bars or other climbing equipment, nearly 128,000 from swings, more than 113,000 from slides and almost 67,000 from other playground equipment.
The estimated cost for playground equipment-related injuries for this age group? $12.8 billion (not million) dollars.
How do these injuries take place? Verbeck said that most commonly it's an arm or hand fracture caused by a fall from an elevated structure.
"Any time you have an elevated structure you run the risk of an injury from a fall," Verbeck explained. "Some municipalities and schools react to this by eliminating all structures and/or recess instead of accepting the fact that children simply get into accidents, and that it is our job to lower the severity of resulting injuries through a thoughtful approach. This preserves a child's right to play."
Preventing these injuries can sometimes be tricky. At times, it's as simple as making sure parents pay attention to the signs indicating the age appropriateness of the equipment, said Laura Haake, a city park designer for the United City of Yorkville, Ill. "Some injuries can be avoided if the child is old enough to play on the equipment," she added. "A 2-year-old on an age-5-to-12 playground is not a safe situation."
Unfortunately, analyzing playground injury prevention recommendations can be difficult due to the many variables to consider, Purvis added. For example, the sites may vary with the amount of adult supervision, equipment maintenance and environmental factors. The doctor noted that several studies have worked to try to chronicle the effectiveness of injury-prevention programs and regulations.
Besides appropriate adult supervision, Purvis sees several things that need to be done to make the playgrounds as safe as possible: parental input and the proper design and installation of the equipment. And, of course, regular inspections and maintenance. Parents, physicians, park officials and school authorities should join together to be certain that their playgrounds meet the highest standards of safety, he said. Playground design and upkeep should be directed to challenge the imagination but avoid serious injury to children. Current initiatives hold promise, but playground injuries continue to be a significant and costly problem.
The doctor added that many accidents result from a child's natural desire for excitement and adventure.
Some injuries can be reduced by working with the natural terrain and installing an appropriate feature that uses what's available. "A playground that includes activities such as sand and water events, theme-play structures, or the inclusion of natural features is a space where the reliance upon kinesthetic events is not as central, thus resulting in fewer injuries, Verbeck said. "In other words, to reduce injuries you have to broaden the horizons of what occupies the space and how it is situated within the context of a specific environment. For instance, if I install a slide into a hillside I have not only reduced my risk of falling from an elevated height, but I have also acknowledged the space in which it resides."
Improving playground safety can be a detailed process that makes sure the equipment is designed and installed properly and then maintained. Sometimes, that process involves trust that you, the person with the need for a playground, are working with a professional whose work is nothing less than superior in quality or safety.
"We rely upon our playground representatives and manufacturers to make sure that our design meets all the safety guidelines," said Haake.
After the installation, she said, a representative does a site inspection to make sure the contractor installed the equipment correctly and that it meets all safety standards. Then, the staff checks the play equipment daily to make sure it's safe to play on—not quarterly, monthly or weekly or when there's already been word of an injury, but daily.
Verbeck feels some caution should be taken when talking about building safe playgrounds.
"We should not even begin to think that we are building safe playgrounds," he said, adding, "To broadcast that a playground is safe is to give a false notion that play is without risk. We should instead be creating playgrounds where risk is closely evaluated at a level that we are comfortable with."
Furthermore, he added, a playground shouldn't be considered completed simply because the contractor "has pulled away the orange fencing." It's important to continue to be responsible for the playground by making adjustments due to repeated incidents or due to a particular design flaw.
Verbeck added that it's important not to implement a one-size-fits-all approach to playground safety, simply because not all playgrounds or communities are the same.
"What works for one community or group of children is not going to work for all," he said. "Safety needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis with certainly some reliance upon basics for which CPSC summarizes."
Purvis said that properly monitoring a playground and investing in educational training are vital since playground regulations alone do not look to be an effective injury prevention tool. A rule book can be written, but if the rules aren't explained or applied, then they are of little use.
What do these playground officials see as the most important factors to consider regarding safety? Haake said that besides safe equipment, it's also important to make sure the layout is safe. This means installing equipment that the police and neighbors can easily see without the obstruction of trees and shrubs. There should also be a light for security at night and an Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible walkway, along with providing easy access for people to use all the park's amenities.
Verbeck lists these critical factors to increase safety: routine maintenance to equipment and surfacing, addressing potential high-risk incidents in a timely fashion, adult supervision, appropriate and sufficient surfacing, providing a diversity of play events, visual and physical accessibility and providing a layout that avoids conflicting use of the space.
When building playgrounds, mistakes can be made no matter how careful the process is. The same goes with any industry: Sometimes even sports arenas have been built only to become obsolete within a decade due to unforeseen changes in market demands.
Verbeck believes that the biggest mistake is a failure to see a playground through the perspective of a child.
"If you cannot see the world through the eyes of a child, you are not able to make a space that is intended for them," he explained. "They see risk at a whole different level because of their perspective and experience. If we make too 'safe' of a space, we don't teach children how to negotiate themselves in comparatively difficult situations and vice versa."
Quite a lot has changed over the years when it comes to playgrounds and their safety. Haake recalls playing at a playground 20 years ago and how there was sand under the play equipment and asphalt under the monkey bars and swings at her elementary school's playground. That playground was built by local parents, including her dad. Then, at a camp in a local forest preserve, there was a 10-foot-tall metal slide and a wooden teeter-totter that went all the way to the ground. ("No tire to bounce off of," she recalled.)
Haake added, "There was no such thing as safety surfacing. It was a play-at-your-own-risk situation. Play has since become a little more guided, and we go the extra length to make play safe."
Today, Verbeck sees what he described as a "formulaic approach" to playground safety that does little to recognize what children need in their play time and hasn't been proven to have an effect on the frequency or severity of injuries.
"The guidelines are an important step, but because they were based on commercial interests, they do not go beyond an equipment perspective," he said. "The positive outcome is that people are more conscious of playground safety now and are better equipped to avoid potential injuries."
From the perspective of the playground builders, building and keeping playgrounds safe can be an arduous checklist: research and development, market research, customer feedback, performing any needed maintenance, taking information on current playgrounds and using it to build the playgrounds of tomorrow. It's a list that can easily go on and on.
Companies that build playgrounds find that the best way to make their playground equipment safe and ensure future equipment is safe can be boiled down to a twofold standard: adhering to federal standards and listening to customers.
One of the biggest concerns of the customers of Kevin Cook, a sales and marketing director for a playground-manufacturing company, focuses on protecting children from falling. This, Cook said, is the single-greatest cause of playground injuries. Falls to the ground can damage the back, cause jaw damage, knock out teeth or cause concussions.
"Customers are also concerned about finger entrapments, shoelace or hood-string entanglements or children getting stuck between pieces of equipment," he said.
To prevent these and other potential injuries, the CPSC and the ASTM provide guidelines and standards that companies like Cook's follow when they design and manufacture playground equipment. Adhering to these guidelines can reduce the likelihood of injuries.
Cook noted that these guidelines and standards are not a cure-all. However, they do significantly reduce the risk. He recommended that buyers verify that manufacturers they're working with participate in the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) Equipment Certification Program and that the product is certified.
"This is an important step to promote safety," he explained. "Additionally, care providers taking children to a playground should maintain proper supervision and encourage play on age-appropriate equipment."
Merv Walker, a Canada-based business owner and a seller of playground equipment, said that sometimes problems can arise when people try to install playground equipment in an area that's too small for the amount of equipment they want to put in it. Everything his company does conforms to the Canadian Standards Association.
"You have a lot of old playground structures out there, whether they're private housing or schools or public facilities," he said. "You have a lot of old structures, and they're trying to replace them and quite often the areas are very small. That would be one of the main things I deal with. Sorting out what area they can allow for and what we can put into that space."
While factors like design, aesthetics and play value are important considerations when having a playground built, safety remains the number-one issue for Cook's customers. After all, what good is a playground that's designed well, looks nice and has lots of things kids like to play on if it poses major safety issues?
"Safety always comes out on top," Cook said. "Design and aesthetics may look good on presentation posters or other types of marketing pieces, but if customers perceive a product or collection of products will put children in harm's way or expose them to an unacceptable level of risk, customers won't buy the product. Frankly we would not want them to."
The idea, Cook explained, is to design playground equipment that allows a child or user the ability to assume a level of risk that's appropriate for their age or stage of development.
An example of this is Cook's company's "Deep Rung Arch Climber," which allows a child to climb up and down between the ground and a deck.
"[They] experience the benefits associated with climbing, such as risk assessment and reward," he added. "The key to this climber, however, is the design, which allows the child on the climber to maintain his or her body weight over their legs instead of on their arms and shoulders—the last part of the body to develop."
Walker said that in his experience, design is also critical to his company's clients—especially since each customer has their own specific tastes.
"[The customers] trust the manufacturer that the design will meet safety standards," he said. When you give a customer the designs and drawings for a playground, he added, a CSA statement has to be on the drawing. "There are no gray areas about it."
As the years pass, particular safety concerns tend to rise up into the spotlight.
One issue that's becoming a big one in playground safety is the use of PVC in playground equipment. Is it a legitimate health risk?
For some, PVC is a welcome building component over steel (which can be heavier and more expensive), aluminum (which, like steel, can conduct heat—a concern for playgrounds in the full, hot sun) and wood (which can wear out quicker—especially if untreated).
While some consider PVC a potential risk that's a toxic threat to ecosystems, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has concluded through researching claims of the dangers of PVC that use of the substance "is not a safety issue on playground equipment."
There are concerns that the byproducts of PVC contain compounds similar to dioxin, and that those compounds can be bad for not only one's health, but also to the environment. However, in 2006 the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that neither the production nor the incineration of PVC "…is a significant source of chlorinated dioxins in the environment."
In other words, the dioxin produced is in far too small amounts to cause any type of significant harm. "There is absolutely no data, none, to support the notion that PVC will harm or injure children who play on PVC-coated play equipment," said IPEMA President Tim Ahern. "IPEMA is always interested in reviewing new safety information, including any independent, third-party, scientific studies concerning PVC in playground equipment."
Experts do acknowledge that PVC does not biodegrade easily, but that it's not a significant problem since there are no concerns about the release of toxic chemicals during degradation. Also, PVC products occupy an estimated 1 percent of U.S. landfills.
Verbeck urges people to use caution before jumping onto an anti-PVC bandwagon. He uses PVC for irrigation, water features and musical instruments. "Unless the material is burned, there is no evidence of toxic exposure," he said. "This issue reminds me of the whole CCA scare—yet another material I wouldn't want to see processed or disposed of, but its use on playgrounds has no recordable effect on the health of children."
Furthermore, Verbeck is concerned about the materials that would replace PVC. Wood will rot a lot quicker, he said, and possibly could result in a structure failure. "This would be a real recordable effect on the welfare of children," he added. "Replacing PVC decking with another material may lead to early corrosion of the deck, which would promote more sales but also increase the incidence of structural failure. Have we really created a safer environment by removing something that wasn't even substantiated with evidence in the first place?"
Eric Torrey, a marketing director for a playground-manufacturing company, still has concerns about PVC—particularly when it's used as a soft, rubbery coating on decks, stairs and ramps for metal playground equipment. The additives that make the PVC soft are phthalates, which, he noted, can be a potentially serious health hazard. Phthalates are chemical compounds of phthalic acid and are used primarily as a "plasticizer"—meaning that they are added to plastics to prolong their lifespan and increase their flexibility.
Torrey's company does not use PVC in its environmentally friendly playgrounds, and other companies have announced they will eliminate PVC from their playground equipment, too.
"Although it has been a topic of discussion for years, many manufacturers of metal playgrounds have been very slow to address the issue of PVC and phthalates," he said.
Torrey notes The PVC Handbook, published by C.P. Hall, which states that "semi-rigid" PVC contains about 10 percent phthalates while flexible PVC contains as much as 50 percent by weight. Also, a phthalate called DEHP can "migrate" out of plastic as a vapor at temperatures exceeding 86 degrees.
Whether these concerns are legitimate is your call. According to a July 2005 (updated in January 2007) report on phthalates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the health effects of phthalates aren't yet known and that more research is needed.
But many manufacturers are asking, why take a chance? In 2007, attorneys general for New York and Illinois announced that Wal-Mart not only would no longer sell PVC baby bibs but would also no longer use PVC in any products intended for use by children. Later that year, California banned the use of phthalates in all products designed for children.
"Europe has had a similar ban for several years," Torrey said.
At the federal level, President George W. Bush in 2008 signed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. This new law, which goes into effect 180 days after its enactment, will prohibit the manufacture for sale and distribution in commerce or import to America of any children's toy or child-care equipment that contains more than 0.1 percent of certain types of phthalates.
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