Playing it Safe

Following a few simple tips can help to avoid accidents and injuries on school playgrounds.

Playgrounds bring to mind thoughts of fun and games, but school administrators must also be aware of a grimmer reality: the potential for injuries.

More than 500,000 children a year are injured on playground equipment, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. About 150,000 of these injuries are considered serious - an average of 15 children die each year in playground accidents.

Some playground injuries cannot be avoided, but the majority of accidents are linked to common playground elements - swings, climbing equipment and slides. With more thorough safety planning, schools could prevent most playground accidents.

A SIMPLE PLAN Every school district should have a basic safety plan for its playgrounds. Keep the plan simple and general - no more than two pages. It should address the following:

- Have a one-time comprehensive playground inspection by a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI). The report will provide you with the information you need to establish and prioritize a plan. If nothing else, it is a simple inventory of what equipment and surfacing your playgrounds have. A CPSI also will have the forms, checklists and schedules you will need, and can act as a technical expert.

- Create a realistic and monitored self-inspection program. Most playground inspectors would say that a rudimentary self-inspection of playgrounds would detect 75 percent of the hazards they report. It should not take a playground expert to recognize a worn S-hook or a cracked swing seat. In a one-hour training class, school officials could learn to recognize entrapment, entanglement and protrusion hazards.

Don't inspect so often that it becomes routine - once a month for the equipment and once every two weeks for the surfacing are about right. Stick to the schedule and keep copies of all checklists.

- Establish maintenance guidelines. Maintenance personnel can be magicians in what they can do with limited resources, but it is a fact that most entanglement and protrusion hazards are the result of improper repair. A bolt protruding more than two threads beyond the nut can, if horizontal, go in a child's eye and, if vertical, snag a sweatshirt hood or drawstrings. Maintenance workers will appreciate some basic training in hazard recognition and often will take the initiative in establishing their own repair guidelines. To facilitate repairs, school administrators should make sure that replacement parts are available.

- Improve playground supervision. Schools vary dramatically in the quality of their playground supervision. At some playgrounds, "any shady area within 50 yards" is an acceptable distance for adult monitors, while others require supervisory staff next to high equipment at all times. Schools should establish basic performance standards for supervisors and agree upon clearly defined do's and don'ts for each piece of equipment. Playground supervision training can be a good investment - supervisors need to understand that height is the real danger; wrestling in the sand is inconvenient; horseplay at nine feet is dangerous.

OUT WITH THE OLD Here are some additional tips:

- Remove equipment that is dangerous or no longer used. A CPSI audit will identify pieces of equipment that are so fundamentally unsafe or out of compliance with guidelines that you should remove them.

Administrators are generally surprised how short that list is. There is nothing wrong with some older equipment, particularly upper-body-strengthening poles and bars. Once again, age is not the problem - height is. Slides and swings are cited most often for removal.

Schools often have playground structures that are no longer used: tetherball posts, for example, or a swing set with all the swings missing. This equipment provides no recreational value and represents nothing but risk for the school.

- Consider relocating play areas. "Never should have been put there in the first place" - those are the words of many principals when talking about their playgrounds, and they are right. Many play equipment areas are situated next to a road or in an area where puddles form every spring. Before deciding to relocate equipment, school officials should seek community input. An involved parent group can help relocate a playground in one weekend.

- Choose the right surfacing. Three-fourths of playground injuries are attributed to falls, so choosing an appropriate surface is the most important playground decision that school officials will make. Much will depend on local weather and soil conditions.

- Factor in the long-term cost of replenishing and redistributing loose materials. Make sure that all potential vendors establish in writing what is the "critical fall height" of their proposed surfacing - i.e., the maximum height of any piece of equipment that should be placed upon it.

- Consider ADA issues. Although the U.S. Justice Department ADA guidelines for playgrounds are not due to be adopted until later this year (visit www.access-board.gov for the latest update), schools should anticipate having to meet routes-of-travel and access-point requirements in the future. Schools should ask all potential surfacing and equipment vendors about their planned ADA compliance.

IN WITH THE NEW Establish procedures and guidelines for purchasing new equipment. Schools should review all proposals or requests for new equipment from a risk-management perspective. The height of equipment determines the potential for danger and the subsequent cost of prevention. A nine-foot slide, for example, will require three more inches of costly surface fill than a six-foot slide. Higher equipment also requires significantly more space in the front and back.

The most common purchasing errors are related to age-appropriateness. Many inspectors have had the discouraging experience of telling a proud parent or teacher group that the sparkling equipment that they just purchased for their kindergartners has a label clearly attached: "appropriate only for children over age 5." Your equipment vendors should comply with U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission standards (CPSC 325, section 6.3), which spell out age-appropriate guidelines.

Also, establish firm installation protocols. Inspectors often see a new composite structure (fully compliant), assembled too quickly by a parent group or a local contractor, and the structure is already dangerously loose, and key safety barriers are installed incorrectly.

It is critical that, after installation, the structure gets a signoff from the manufacturer that it has been installed according to manufacturer's specifications.

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