Eliminating Hazardous Bleacher Conditions

Bleachers are a common site in school gymnasiums and athletic fields, providing seating for family, friends and fans who come to cheer students on at a sporting event. But bleachers also could be a hazard if openings in the structure are wide enough to allow someone, especially a child, to slip through the gaps.

The risk of death or serious injury has prompted Bill Luther and Jim Ramstad, two congressmen from Minnesota, to introduce a bill that would establish national safety standards for bleachers.

Tragedy spurs legislation The Minnesota lawmakers drafted the bill after a death and two serious injuries in their home state.

In January, a 6-year-old boy slipped through a large gap in the bleachers at a hockey arena in Hutchinson, Minn., and fell to his death.

A few weeks later, a 2-year-old girl suffered a concussion and broken arm when she fell from bleachers at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minn.; and a 5-year-old boy in St. Paul, Minn., fractured his skull after falling from bleachers at an ice rink.

Luther introduced the bleacher safety bill in February, and the House has not yet taken any action. At this point, the proposal would not require bleacher owners to go back and fix existing bleachers.

But advocates hope the increased attention on bleacher safety will encourage schools, universities and others who own bleachers to fix potentially dangerous conditions.

"Everybody has known forever that these conditions existed," says Ted Thompson, Luther's chief of staff. "At some point, schools and universities need to realize they could have a major problem on their hands."

Federal guidelines sought The proposal (House Resolution 836) would direct the Consumer Product Safety Commission to develop federal safety regulations for "the production, erection and retrofitting of bleacher and grandstand facilities to reduce the risk of children falling between guardrails and gaps in the seats.

"Infants and children have been injured and killed in recent years by falling between bleacher guardrails and gaps between seats," the proposed bill states. "Injuries have also occurred because older bleacher facilities do not have back and side barriers which prevent children from climbing or falling off the structures."

No one has conducted a study to determine the overall condition of bleachers and grandstands on school and college campuses across the nation, but Thompson says anecdotal evidence that the congressman's office has received indicates the problem of gaps in bleachers is common.

State regulations Besides the proposed regulations at the federal level, the Minnesota Legislature has toughened safety requirements on the state level. Advocates of the legislation hope other states adopt similar regulations.

For bleachers that are five feet or higher, the Minnesota law calls for reducing the gaps between seats and floorboards to no more than four inches. As an alternative, safety netting can be used in gaps larger than four inches. The four-inch gap limit also is the standard that the International Code Council has set forth for bleachers and grandstands in the proposed uniform International Building Code that the council is drafting.

The Minnesota law also states that bleachers must have vertical guardrails along their perimeter, the gaps between seats and guardrails must be no more than four inches.

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