Play It Safe
Staying Educated & Knowing Best Practices Key to Playground Safety
By Deborah L. Vence
Many factors go into keeping a playground safe. Quality equipment, the right surfacing (loose-fill or unitary surfacing) and routine maintenance are all essential. Even more important is for playground owners and operators to stay educated about what it really takes to maintain playgrounds, and stay updated on safety standards.
"The owners and operators for playground safety need to understand that there are standards out there that they should be aware of," said Fran Mainella, who is co-chair of the U.S. Play Coalition, and was the 16th director of the National Park Service of the United States from 2001 to 2006, the first woman to hold that position.
Kenneth Kutska, executive director of the International Playground Safety Institute LLC, in Bradenton, Fla., and a retired director of parks and planning in Wheaton, Ill., wrote an article on playground safety in 2017 that focuses on the "idea of harmonizing international playground standards as we look at where we have come from and where we appear to be headed as standard-writing organizations."
Many factors go into keeping a playground safe. Quality equipment, the right surfacing and routine maintenance are all essential.
In his article, "Proverb: The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions," which can be found at www.playgroundprofessionals.com, Kutska indicated that in North America, several documents exist that influence public playground management decisions when it comes to playground safety issues.
"One is a guideline published by a federal agency, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Another is a voluntary performance standard established by the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM), the world's largest non-government standards development organization," he stated. "Over the past 25 years, AS™ has published many more playground equipment and impact attenuating surfacing standards."
What They Need to Know
When it comes to playground safety, one of the most important things playground owners and operators need to do is to educate themselves on the best practices.
"[Playground owners and operators] need to educate themselves on what the best practices are, which I find many owners don't understand or get involved in until something unfortunate takes place," Kutska said in a recent interview.
While thousands of people have been educated over the years, not all of them maintain certification.
"Certification is only good for three years and you must retest to maintain it. Many change jobs over [the] years [and] find they no longer need it. It is a body of knowledge certification, not a job competency certification," he said. "We seem to see about 60 percent new people every class we teach. I know we have over 3,500 to 4,000 people in 50-plus courses every year since 2000."
Kutska also stressed the importance of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) handbook for playground operators.
"It's a good beginning to read and understand," Kutska said. A section in the handbook on layout and supervision in the layout covers the equipment—presenting information on what the groups or organizations designing a playground really need to think about.
Some things to consider, for example, include: Once you pick the site, you need to select the vendor and have the right kind of purchasing decisions.
Also, "Who's going to install it? It needs to be installed properly, considering drainage and other types of things," Kutska said. "So many mistakes can be made. [You have to] select the appropriate surfacing, and is the owner going to be able to maintain it? Decisions could be made based on price. What is it going to cost long-term?"
The trend has been to minimize exposure to risk, at least for schools and municipalities, he said.
In Kutska's article, he stated that "There are many organizations actively involved in promoting best practices for public playground management. Each has the children's best interest in mind. However, their approach to the myriad of issues involved, are often at opposite ends of the continuum between what a risk is and when the level of risk of harm becomes a hazard.
"I see a fine line between what is considered acceptable risk and where the risk of harm exceeds what society considers acceptable. Regardless of what side of this line you find yourself, I think we can all agree there is a need for challenging play experiences for children of all abilities," he stated. "We also can agree that challenge should not pose a risk of harm, which exceeds the balance of the benefits of risky play versus the determent of an increase in debilitating and life-threatening injuries."
Scott Burton, president of a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based company that specializes in safety services and products for playgrounds, sports fields and recreation areas, advised that playground owners and operators get a "third-party Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI), not the installer or sales rep or someone that sells parts or makes repairs, to do an 'audit', which is much more comprehensive than a standard 'inspection'.
"Someone without a vested interest is the key here, as well as 'plenty' of experience doing audits and, hopefully, some experience to draw on to make those modification recommendations," he said, suggesting that once the third party has submitted a report, to get a CPSI to make the repairs/modifications needed.
"Make sure all CPSIs are going by the most current and applicable AS™ Standards (#F1487-17, #F1292, and don't forget to use the often-overlooked #F2049-17 Playground Fencing Standard) and CPSC Guidelines (#325, 2010 version)," Burton said. "Once you get all of that done, you have transferred some of that liability to others in the field, and now you can focus on doing your frequent maintenance inspections."
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.
The types of maintenance that are best for playgrounds can entail a lengthy list, but the short answer is that "it depends on what equipment and type of surfacing you have," Burton said.
"Pick up trash, check for loose or worn hardware, pits under swings and slides, etc. The CPSI course is recommended, but still hire that third party for reasons stated earlier," he said.
Constant maintenance and periodic inspections are crucial in order to maintain a safe playground.
Mainella praised the Eppley Institute for its maintenance courses. "These are [for] folks that work in play areas, in general, how to keep it safe, how to keep it maintained," she said.
The Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands offers Playground Maintenance Technician (PMT) training nationally.
"This training focuses on practical playground maintenance practices, inspection principles and best practices in making repairs targeting the park maintenance technician who is in the field daily," Wolter said.
"The curriculum, developed by the Park District Risk Management Association (PDRMA)," he added, "explores maintenance challenges associated with the common materials found in playgrounds. PMT trainees learn about the types of playground inspections, how to repair damaged equipment and associated legal considerations. A virtual playground offers participants the opportunity to apply newly learned skills."
The PMT differs from and complements the CPSI.
"PMT empowers an agency's front-line staff to identify and correct hazardous situations before they result in an injury. The PMT curriculum teaches staff the skills necessary to address maintenance issues quickly and efficiently, resulting in safer play structures in real time," Wolter said. "The CPSI certification focuses on evaluating a playground's compliance by judging equipment and surfacing against current AS™ standards and the CPSI handbook. Each agency really needs both types of trained personnel."
Mainella added that "It's meant to train the regular workers that are out there on the playground."
But, in general, she said, "it's important that the leadership of departments of communities and schools observe the children playing, observe play on the equipment. Be a casual observer."
For example, "What do you notice about the flow of use of equipment? Or where are they fetching up on the surface?' It's important to do regular re-inspections to make sure that it is meeting the standards," she said.
Always check for hazards, for instance. Know how to make repairs in a safe way. What's also important is doing the inspections on a systematic basis—a weekly basis. And, consider how often playgrounds are used, as well as weather conditions.
"People need their play areas so much more after a crisis. [It's important] to somehow [find a way to] make those play areas safe as quickly as possible, so they can be out there. I saw the stress on the people here [referring to the aftermath of Hurricane Irma]. They needed their play areas back again," Mainella added.
Sometimes playground owners make mistakes, with some of the most common ones being "Assuming their playgrounds are safe when they may not be, lack of maintenance and adequate audits and inspections, lack of proper signs or labels. Leaving things go until a lawsuit appears, then they need expensive lawyers and expert witnesses," Burton said.
Yet another mistake is becoming too complacent and not checking things on a regular basis and the condition of the playground, Mainella said.
"Don't wait for the complaint call to come in," she said. "You might have to be replacing equipment. Don't become complacent. Make sure you are regularly looking at the equipment and meeting the needs of the community, being safe. You might have to understand those needs and understand the fact that there is always some risk.
"Even though someone gets hurt—take a deep breath and, again, remove the hazards," she added. "There is always going to be some risk and there is some incident with risk."
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