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Accidents happen but precautions will keep playgrounds safer

By Eric Spacek

They provide a respite for children and allow them to get outside, play and enjoy themselves. However, ensuring that a playground is properly installed and maintained is critically important to the safety of all who step foot into the area.

In fact, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 200,000 children are seen in the emergency room each year due to playground injuries. It is inevitable that accidents will happen on the playground; however, taking the proper precautions can help reduce the number of accidents at your facility.

Choosing the proper site and layout is a critical process in making the playground safe for use. Choose a location that will eliminate obstacles and hazards children could encounter when traveling to and from the site. For example, don’t have children crossing a street or through a parking lot. Make sure to secure the area with a fence or landscaping hedges to help ensure that children are unable to leave, and others will be unable to enter unnoticed.

Those in charge should designate different areas for different types of activity. For example, an open field should be separated from a sandbox. Divide the equipment by age groups. Remember to avoid crowding by spreading out heavily used equipment. Supervisors need to make sure that they are able to maintain a clear line of sight at all times.

Selecting equipment
Using high quality equipment will ensure that your playground is safer for those who play on it and the equipment lasts longer. Use only commercial grade equipment and have it installed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Also, purchase equipment according to the age groups that will use it the most, as not all equipment is appropriate for all ages. Make sure you request detailed product information from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Leaders should avoid installing any hazardous types of equipment, including the following:

  • Animal figure swings
  • Spring-loaded equipment
  • Exercise rings and trapeze bars
  • Glider swings
  • Merry-go-rounds
  • Metal slides
  • Monkey bars
  • Seesaws
  • Swings with hard surface seats
  • Swinging ropes
  • Trampolines

Safe surface
The surface material can play a role in the safety of your playground, as nearly 70 percent of playground injuries result from a fall and the surface material can be a major determining factor in the seriousness of an injury.

Because head injuries can be life threatening, taking this precaution is a necessary step in ensuring the safety of those who use your facility. The following materials should be avoided:

Asphalt or concrete: These are unsuitable for use under or around playground equipment.

Earth surfaces (soil and hard-packed dirt): These are not recommended because of their poor shock absorbing properties.

Grass and turf: These are not recommended as they are subject to wear and environmental conditions, which can reduce their effectiveness in absorbing shock during a fall.

Equipment should be surrounded by at least nine to 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand or pea gravel and mats or synthetic surfacing made of safety-tested rubber or rubber-like materials can be used as an alternative.

Inspection and maintenance

Not only does a safe playground require proper equipment and installation, regular inspection and maintenance will help ensure that your playground remains safe and in proper working order.

Install and maintain all playground equipment according to manufacturer’s recommendations.

Inspect all equipment on a regular basis for the following:

Sharp points, corners and edges: Metal and wood corners should be rounded and wood parts should be smooth and free of splinters.

Protective caps: Caps should not be able to be loosened or removed without the use of a tool.

Fasteners and connectors: All nuts and bolts should be made of corrosion-resistant material and have lock washers, self-locking nuts or other locking means to prevent them from easily becoming loosened.

Openings: No openings should measure between 3 1/2 to nine inches, to prevent entrapment, except where the equipment meets the ground. Pay special attention to the top of slides, between platforms and on limbers.

Anchoring: Securely anchor all equipment to the ground, making sure that all anchoring devices are below ground to eliminate tripping hazards.

Protrusions or projections: These should not be capable of entangling clothing.

Hand/guardrails, protective barriers and steps or rungs on ladders: Check for broken or missing components.

Exterior condition: Paint, galvanize or treat metal equipment to prevent rust. Confirm that the finish does not contain harmful amounts of lead. Test the finish on older equipment to determine the amount of lead it contains, especially if it is beginning to flake or peel.

S hooks: Ensure that all hooks are squeezed closed and in good condition, with no visible signs of corrosion or deterioration. Open S hooks can present a strangulation hazard.

In addition to regularly examining the equipment for hazards, the playground area should be inspected and maintained so that hazardous materials can be removed. Some things to look for include: Broken glass or other dangerous debris, tripping hazards, such as exposed concrete footings, tree stumps and rocks, and shock absorbing surfaces in and around the equipment that have been displaced or compacted.

While having a playground is a source of fun and entertainment for the youth of the church, it is a responsibility that requires regular upkeep and proper training for those who are in charge. By taking the time to properly maintain your playground, it can be a safe place for all to enjoy.

Eric Spacek is senior risk manager at GuideOne Insurance, West Des Moines, IA.  www.guideone.com

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