Maintenance: Grounds

Playgrounds: Safety & Maintenance Go Hand-in-Hand

By Dawn Klingensmith

The pictorial collection of mishaps and mess-ups on includes two playground photos side by side. The first shows a tot at the top of a plastic corkscrew slide. The second is a close-up of what awaits this poor child at the bottom of the slide. It appears someone has patched a hole there with a piece of scrap wood and some nails with the heads sticking up. The headline: "Playground Maintenance Fail."

Some reader comments:

"That's got to be at least 4-ply!"

"I wood say something, butt…"

"They forgot the vat of piranhas underneath."

We laugh because the photographer—probably an incredulous parent—undoubtedly prevented the child from going down the slide and getting injured. But for parks and recreation managers, playground maintenance is no laughing matter, especially where safety is concerned. Not only can poorly maintained equipment cause injuries, but it can also lead to lawsuits, said Mark Baker, vice president of a playground design company based in Vista, Calif., and a certified playground safety inspector.

Legally, "There's a big difference between negligence and an accident," he said. And accidents will happen "unless you put each child in a rubber suit or something."

But negligence does not have to happen, especially given there are industry guidelines and published standards for playground maintenance and inspection.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and ASTM International both publish playground safety standards that address maintenance.

"From a manufacturer standpoint, our membership companies provide maintenance recommendations that come with the equipment," said Tom Norquist, marketing committee chair of the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) and senior vice president of corporate innovation of a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based playground manufacturer.

In addition, manufacturers that are members of IPEMA offer training on how to maintain the playground equipment and surfacing they sell, Norquist said.

Proper maintenance, in accordance with manufacturers' instructions, will help prolong the life of the equipment; however, most playground equipment is designed to last 10 to 15 years without requiring a lot of maintenance to maintain its appearance and functionality, Baker said. If longevity is important, consider a shade structure over the equipment, Baker suggested, because direct sunlight causes fading and deterioration.

"There's a big difference between
negligence and an accident."

Perhaps the most important tools a playground inspector will need are a pencil and paper, because record-keeping is the basis of an effective maintenance program. Taking note of problems and corrective actions and keeping the information on file "sounds really obvious," Norquist said, "but so many times, organizations don't keep them or they get misplaced."

Organizations with no written record of playground maintenance practices are more vulnerable should they get sued.

Of course, it's important that maintenance workers know what to look for. Most public playgrounds have designated personnel or consultants who are licensed certified playground safety inspectors. They perform playground inspections to address safety and maintenance issues and are knowledgeable about what's required for the written report.

Generally speaking, a maintenance program should consist of daily, monthly, and seasonal or yearly inspections, in accordance with national safety standards.

Even with a program in place, maintenance issues can arise and turn into safety hazards if protocols aren't followed or if the organization responsible for the playground is understaffed. The most common maintenance-related safety threats are splinters, rust, dangerous gaps, protruding bolts, and broken or missing parts, according to the National Program for Playground Safety, Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Aside from being unsightly, "Rust is bad because it's an indication an area might be getting weak," said executive director Donna Thompson. Also, kids can ingest rust that flakes off or rubs off on their hands.

The daily inspection ideally is a walkthrough to spot-check for these and other problems, and notes generally aren't taken. Unfortunately, when parks departments have a number of playgrounds to take care of, these daily inspections often are cursory drive-bys, Baker said: "You should really get out and look around. Depending on the area, people go in at night and leave hypodermic needles and a variety of other used things on the playground that you don't want kids to get their hands on. If you don't get out and walk around, you're not going to see them. So, who's going to find it? A 3-year-old."

Daily inspections are conducted mainly to address problems that might have developed overnight, such as vandalism, broken glass, displaced loose-fill surfacing, animal waste, unsafe standing water, and trip hazards and holes.

"The number-one cause of damage to playgrounds is vandalism, especially for parks and recreation playgrounds. If you have teenagers jumping on a deck and burning it with a lighter and carving things into it, and then the next day there's a deck failure, that's negligence," said Baker, who has served as an expert witness in court cases involving playground injuries.

"Swing-set seats for some reason receive an awful lot of abuse from box cutters and pocket knives," said Teri Hendy, president and owner of Site Masters Inc., a design and safety consulting company based in Cincinnati.

The vinyl seats have metal plates in them for support, and if the protective vinyl is slashed, the exposed metal becomes a safety hazard, she added.

In some areas, graffiti is a constant problem. Norquist doesn't know of any easy removal techniques, and though it's a pain, the best way to deter "tagging" is to "undo it" as soon as possible: "If you're persistent, if you keep going out and painting over it, the taggers will move on because they get discouraged that their beautiful art keeps disappearing."

The monthly playground inspection Baker referred to is more thorough and includes a formal report. ASTM International and CPSC publish a playground safety audit form for monthly and yearly inspections; the list provided here is not comprehensive, but gives an idea of what an audit entails and what to look for:

  • Footings are not loose or exposed.
  • Fasteners are secure.
  • Welds are intact and free of cracks.
  • Equipment is free of rust and corrosion.
  • Wood is not splintered, cracked or otherwise deteriorated.
  • Paint is not chipping or peeling.
  • All swivels, bearings and moving parts are well-lubricated and in good shape.
  • There are no broken or missing parts.
  • There are no sharp edges or unsafe protrusions.
  • Plastic is not cut or cracked.
  • Surfacing areas are clean and their levels sufficient.
  • Benches are securely in place.

The yearly audit is a "very formal report," Baker said. Pictures are taken to document the condition of the playground. Any hazards that are discovered are given a ranking of 1 to 5, with Priority 1 hazards being the most serious. Priority 1 hazards include life-threatening conditions, such as potential entrapments or entanglements, and they must be fixed immediately.

It is mandatory in California to conduct a yearly impact test, at a cost of $3,000 to $5,000, for rubber surfacing. "There are 155,000 children injured each year on playgrounds due to falls, so you want to make sure your surfacing is up-to-date," Baker said.

However, Baker believes performing the test once every three years is sufficient where the law doesn't require more frequent testing.

Hendy and other industry professionals describe playground maintenance as "high-frequency" or "low-frequency." High-frequency maintenance duties are often routine and custodial in nature, such as sweeping walkways and leveling loose-fill surfacing, but also include such tasks as checking for potential wear points and tightening hardware.

Low-frequency maintenance requires trained personnel and includes the sort of detailed, thorough inspection performed for an annual audit.

Usage patterns affect maintenance and patrol frequency. A heavily used playground may require hourly spot checks. In some circumstances, staff on patrol isn't sufficient. "If people are coming by the busload every 15 minutes, you may need to have a full-time employee on site at all times," Hendy said.

You may be able to get away with a weekly inspection of a little-used park, but be prepared to deviate from your schedule in response to weather events.

"Be aware of changes to equipment that result from the environment," Hendy said. "If a storm comes through and a branch falls on the equipment, you take the tree branch away, but you also need to check the equipment to make sure nothing's bent or damaged."

After heavy rains, the dirt around footings can become wet and unstable. Hendy has witnessed swing set footers coming out of the ground as kids were swinging: "The swing set was literally rocking. There was this huge sucking sound as the concrete footings came out of the ground."

She has also seen kids wearing rubber boots and wading out to playground equipment in flood-like conditions. Assuming kids won't come because of rain is foolish, Hendy said. "That just makes it more fun for them."

"There are 155,000 children injured each year
on playgrounds due to falls, so you want to
make sure your surfacing is up-to-date."

Likewise, children are not deterred by broken equipment and, in some cases, may even be drawn to it, so it's important to fix things as soon as possible.

For liability reasons, Thompson recommends playgrounds post a sign stating that adult supervision is recommended. The wording is important: "Do not put 'required' because that will be interpreted by lawyers as meaning the park should have known to provide supervision," she said.

In addition, post signage indicating which ages each area and play event in the park is suitable for.

Since most parks and recreation departments are experiencing budget woes, Norquist suggests they recruit and deploy volunteers to help with playground maintenance. Many organizations host annual or semiannual volunteer maintenance events to get help to conduct a thorough cleanup, distribute loose-fill surfacing, install benches and other tasks that don't require special skills. Pirate Cove Playground, a community-built playground in Wylie, Texas, makes an event of it, encouraging families to bring picnic lunches and kids 7 and older to pitch in and get their hands dirty.

Volunteering also gives playground users a sense of pride and ownership, so they'll take better care of the park and keep a watchful eye out for vandals.

Playground owners can also reach out to corporations to see if they sponsor paid volunteer days when employees work together on a project. Through such a program, "I built a retaining wall in a playground with a bunch of lawyers," Norquist said. "They had a great time because it was something different, something they don't usually do."

Most parks and recreation departments have at least one staffer who is trained to inspect playgrounds, and a good volunteer program can help ensure the training is put to good use, Hendy said. "If you have them pulling weeds and planting flowers, it takes them away from inspecting playgrounds. Not everyone can identify hazards, but everyone can pull weeds. So, I'm not suggesting that we shift responsibility for identifying hazards onto the public, but there certainly are things they can do" to free up trained inspectors.

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