Safety for the Duration

Keeping Playground Equipment & Surfaces Safe Now & in the Future

By Rick Dandes

Children are wired to play and have fun, and some of their favorite things to do are found at playgrounds, where there is a variety of heavy-duty equipment in an open space to climb, swing, crawl, dig, slide, jump, hang and run. Taking the kids to a playground gives both kids and adults unstructured playtime out of the house, in the fresh air. Kids get to use up some of their boundless energy, and parents get to enjoy watching their children as they play on safe equipment they don't have at home.

Meanwhile, for both the user and the operator of a playground, safety is a critical issue, and here's why: More than 200,000 children across the United States ages 14 and under are taken to hospital emergency rooms each year due to being injured in playground and play area accidents, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The CPSC also said there are on average 17 deaths each year. The toll on these children and their families is immeasurable. The dollar costs to a playground operator, in terms of liability and litigation, is potentially staggering.

Start Safe

When installing a playground, you first need to think about site selection, shade, traffic, drainage, and proximity to potential dangers, including ponds, public places and steep fall-offs said Caroline Smith, senior manager of professional development, National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). In selecting equipment, a group should make sure the equipment is age-appropriate and is spaced properly to ensure adequate use zones and sight lines for supervisors. Accessibility and inclusion should be considered throughout the process.

Today's playgrounds are very safe if installed and maintained correctly, Smith added. But safe now doesn't mean safe later. So it's important to not only have a safe playground at installation, but also to be safe through the entire lifecycle of the equipment. That's accomplished through regular inspections and proper maintenance.

There are many potential hazards on a playground, explained Tom Norquist, senior vice president of product development and marketing for a Fort Payne, Ala.-based play equipment manufacturer, and past president and current secretary of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) and long-term active American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) representative. "Number one would probably be the lack of an adequate surface material," he said. "Usually, we see a lack of maintenance on a loose fill, especially engineered wood fiber surfacing systems that have been installed and not maintained. After that would be poor maintenance on equipment. And then lack of signage for age appropriateness."

An example, Norquist said, is when you see a big, beautiful play environment, and everyone seems to be drawn to the equipment for the older children, including parents, who might be taking their 2- or 3-year-old to that equipment, but children that age are not quite physically able to conquer some of the more challenging equipment geared toward school-age children.

"It's a very common thing to see," Norquist continued. "I see parents being hazards, in some instances. I've seen children lifted up on overhead devices, parents encouraging children to climb real tall climbers at the ages of 2 and 3. We are overzealous with our desire for our children to have fun, do great things.

"We are encouraging a child's development," Norquist explained. "But please, take them to a playground that is more appropriate from a developmental standpoint. It's a real challenge for designers to create environments that encourage parents and young children to have developmentally appropriate fun on the smaller equipment."

That's right, added Kevin Cook, sales manager for an international play equipment manufacturer based in Lewisburg, Pa. "You want to ensure that the equipment you select is age-appropriate. Know the ages of the children that will utilize the playground most often. Assess the environmental conditions relevant to your play area. It's also important to determine usage. For example, if it's a school playground, do you anticipate additional use by the community in off hours and on the weekend? Shaded areas and supervision should also be considered when selecting equipment."

What to Look For

Ken Kutska, executive director, International Playground Safety Institute, literally wrote the book about playground safety, "Playground Safety Is No Accident: Developing a Public Playground Safety and Maintenance Program," and he said a knowledgeable, experienced inspector from the start should look for things that are not compliant. "Do a risk assessment and put a label on things that would otherwise be a safety concern. The number-one cause of deaths probably is entanglement. Strangulation occurs many times by things that children bring into the playground like ropes and dog leashes.

Next on Kutska's list of hazards would be head and neck entrapment, when young children, pre-school-age primarily, crawl through an opening. The body passes through but the head doesn't.

These safety hazards have been well documented, Kutska said, and manufacturers have responded by designing openings so that entrapment doesn't happen.

But there are other potential dangers in playgrounds, he said. Projections that can impale body parts like an eye, a skull or soft tissue, abdomen, and that usually happens when kids fall on things.

Sharp edges and points are pretty obvious, like a straight edge where sometimes a protective covering has been removed and children run into them. A piece of galvanized pipe where the cap is off, leaving a sharp edge can be a hazard, and can cause a laceration. Minor things should be watched for as well, such as animal excrement in the playground. "Some parks become public toilets or a place for hanging out overnight. The owner needs to be aware of these things early in the morning before kids, the regular patrons, get in there," he explained.

"Probably the number-one cause of injuries, in terms of sheer numbers and requiring medical treatment, in public and private playgrounds would be falls to the surface or onto other equipment," Kutska said. So the importance of maintaining the proper depth of loose fill or having a surface that meets the threshold requirements for impact absorption is critical.

When a person falls, Kutska noted, "we don't want the head or body to absorb the energy, we want the surface to absorb that energy. Unfortunately, because of budgets and other issues, these surfaces don't get inspected or attended to like they should, so falls are still the number-one cause of injuries, but not the cause of death, which is still entanglement."

Surface Pros and Cons

There are three types of playground surfacing categories: loose-fill surfaces, unitary surfaces, and a combination of the two, explained Jeff Mrakovich, director of surfacing products for a Middletown, Pa.-based playground surfacing manufacturer. "The most popular loose-fill surface for playgrounds is EWF (engineered wood or rubber fiber), sand, pea gravel or wood chips, because they are less expensive, do not require professional installation and give greater fall height protection at a fraction of the cost of unitary surfaces," he said.

Historically, loose-fill Impact Attenuating Surface (IAS) materials, when maintained at the appropriate depths, do provide good protection from a fall. It should not, however, be installed over hard surfaces such as asphalt or concrete. The major disadvantage of a loose material is that it is loose. It does not stay where it is placed; it requires a form of containment because it tends to scatter in high-use areas and needs to be raked and replenished periodically in order to keep the surface safe and accessible, which increases maintenance costs throughout the life cycle of the playground. Engineered wood fiber and shredded rubber fiber are the only loose-fill materials to be considered accessible to those with physical disabilities.

"Initial installation methods, such as watering and compacting the EWF in layers," Mrakovich said, "will help speed up the knitting process, which makes the surface firm and stable for accessibility purposes. Folks normally don't install it like that, so you have to wait on natural compaction to occur, which will happen over time when children run on it and when it rains. This helps the knitting process to happen." Knitting is when the fibers from the wood intertwine and get tight. This creates a more firm and stable surface. That's why water is essential during installation. Products such as wear mats can help decrease maintenance in high use areas such as swings and slide exits.

Unitary surfaces, Mrakovich explained, such as PIP (poured-in-place rubber), rubber tiles and synthetic turf, have more up-front material costs, require professional installation and do not have the same impact resiliency as most loose-fill products. However, they do not require a lot of maintenance so they are desirable for those that have bigger budgets and limited help to maintain their playgrounds from a safety and accessibility point of view.

The final example of IAS materials is a composite surface using a combination of loose fill, rubber and matting. For example, a stone drainage base topped with a geotextile fabric for drainage purposes. This is then covered with bags of recycled rubber material. The same rubber present in the bags is then poured over the top of the system to fill in between the bags and create a level surface. This is then covered by a containment mat to keep everything together. This composite approach creates a very effective system.

There are some specific common surfaces that are not acceptable for use as protective surfaces. These surfaces include concrete, asphalt, packed earth and grass. All are too dense and do not provide impact absorption. Because of this, these surfaces do not adequately protect against critical head injuries and should not be used as a protective surface regardless of the fall height of the equipment.

checking the thickness of the surfacing in and around use zones is of utmost importance, Mrakovich said. Unitary surfaces such as tiles and PIP can harden over time due to exposure to the sun so getting an impact test done in high-use zones periodically is critical. It may still look good on the surface, but it's hard to tell what is going on underneath. Drainage is another issue over time that could make a surface less safe during colder temperatures. Imagine standing water just below the surface that is not draining out of the play area and how less resilient a surface will be if that water freezes.

The best thing a playground owner can do is their homework about what maintenance will be needed for their surfacing. Then, come up with a program to regularly inspect and maintain it. Check to be sure you use the recommended thickness of the surface for the fall height required. With loose-fill, make a mark on the equipment post so you can see when the surface needs to be topped off. Some synthetic manufacturers may recommend an impact test every so often to make sure the surface is still resilient. The surface may look good on the top but if it has begun to decay beneath the wear layer it may not be safe, and the only way to determine that is to perform a drop test. There are many playground consulting companies that offer this. As far as professional installation is concerned, if you consider poured in place, make sure the company is IPEMA certified. One of the things that buyers don't realize when buying poured in place is that IPEMA certifies the vendor's installation crews as well as the product itself since installation is so critical with this sort of surface.

Regular Maintenance and Inspection

Regular maintenance can reduce the unexpected, Cook said. Equipment kept in peak condition will not only look good but will also create a safer environment for children to enjoy. You really need to pay attention to maintenance. Anything that moves or has moving parts tends to wear out over time.

Because playground environments are subject to changes from use, abuse and climate, they need to be inspected on a regular basis. What does that mean? The frequency of the inspection needs to be determined by several factors, which include the age of the equipment; how much use it gets (is this a neighborhood playground, a church playground or an inner-city playground that might be used by hundreds of children every day?); the materials the equipment is made of (Is it wood? Steel? Plastic?) All of these are factors in frequency of maintenance.

"You need to think of two different types of inspections," Norquist said. "And this is what the industry will typically train to: low-frequency inspection and high-frequency inspections."

A low frequency inspection, he explained, is something that is performed every quarter or maybe a couple times a year, and it is very in-depth. "You are looking at every aspect of surfacing, looking for wear and tear. If it's a loose fill, you look at the depth to see if it's adequate. If you own a testing device you could test the surfacing for its impact attenuation." If you go to inspect and there is loose fill on the sidewalk and litter on the ground, and you see this every time you go, then you have to consider increasing the frequency of inspections or have someone else in the park or school site look for those things and take care of them.

"You are also examining all aspects of the equipment," Norquist explained, "looking for things like, is there an entanglement or a protrusion? Is there any area where a child might be entrapped? You are making sure all the use zones are adequate. Checking the equipment for structural integrity. Has there been a freeze-thaw cycle where water may have been involved and some of the metal may have been damaged? If it is wood, are there any issues with rot just below the finished grade area? If it is wood, you are looking at the top of it to see if there is any rot. Are there areas where the equipment has become damaged or had excessive wear? With excessive wear you are looking at moving components. As you can imagine and probably have witnessed, anything that moves and is used frequently tends to need to have some maintenance. I've seen areas where the chains of a swing can get worn out in just a couple of years from nonstop use. S-hooks on swings and bearings on equipment should be checked regularly for wear. That's a low frequency."

In a high-frequency inspection, you are training staff to do a quick visual inspection, and usually it is performed daily or at least on a weekly basis, depending on the amount of visitors the playground attracts. You're looking to see if anything happened to the surface that is major. Are there any sanitation issues, like the presence of debris or trash? "A lot of things happen at night on a public playground," Norquist said. "You need to look for things like bottles. And you need to look for animals. I've come across a raccoon in a trash can in the morning, and it was a frightening surprise. You're also looking for something that might have been vandalized. That's unfortunately not uncommon, particularly on a piece of playground equipment in a high-use or urban public environment. There are folks out there who take their aggression out on manmade things, and a public playground in the middle of the night can be a target."

One important point, said both Norquist and Kutska, is to keep detailed records of your inspections because that becomes a very imp ortant part of showing your due diligence and maintaining this environment that children are going to be using.

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