In 1981, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) published voluntary, non-mandated, safety guidelines for public-use playgrounds. These guidelines were revised in 1991 as a single document (#325), and again in 1994 and 1997, and is currently being revised.. The changes have reflected new injury data and changes in products sold in the marketplace.
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) also addresses the standards of care for the playground industry. However, due to conflicting information in these documents, it is sometimes confusing to figure out which standards to follow. When in doubt, follow the more stringent rule, and it becomes confusion-free.
Having performed playground safety audits at almost 2,600 playgrounds, as well as being an ex-manufacturer and installer, I offer some helpful hints on what will pass for compliance and what will not. In an attempt to placate playground installers, owner/operators and wheelchair users, here are a few problems with some helpful solutions:
1. In many cases, poured rubber surfacing is installed so that the outside of the beveled edge (thinnest part) is right at the minimum distance (use zone) from the equipment. If a child falls onto that part of the surfacing, there is not enough surfacing in that portion to absorb the impact. Solution: Install the surfacing so that the minimum depth is inside the use zone, and the beveled edge is outside the minimum use zone.
2. Many sites have poured-in-place rubber surfacing, and many comply with the applicable standards. However, some are found to be short on overall material. It is frustrating to find a site where the owner contracts and pays for 2-1/2 inches of poured rubber, but ends up with only 1-1/2 inches. More than likely, this will not be in compliance with the minimum impact attenuation required, and it is shorting the client on materials that have been paid for.
Solution: Check the quantity of materials to ensure there is enough for what is specified. In addition, have a system in place to be able to verify the depth of the surfacing. This will alleviate the chances of not getting paid for the job, or sued for being liable for injuries later.
3. One reason for beveled edges is so that a wheelchair does not tip. I often see edges that are not beveled at all (see photo below), or are beveled at 30 degrees. There must be a beveled edge when the top of the poured rubber surfacing does not match the height of the adjacent surfacing, such as sand, mulch, etc. If there is a sidewalk, no beveled edge is required if the heights of the two (sidewalk and rubber) are the same. A beveled edge that is 30 degrees exceeds the limit set by ADA Accessibility Guidelines. In most cases, the maximum is 26.5 degrees, which matches the allowable slope to prevent tip-over. One manufacturer came up with 30 degrees, and it has become common in the field, but will not pass.
Solution: If the difference in height between two surfaces is more than a half-inch, install an edge that is beveled up to 26.5 degrees to avoid conflicts with code enforcement.
4. Transfer stations require a side step higher than 8 inches from the surfacing so the user can get back to the transfer point unassisted.
Solution: When installing the surfacing, be sure to measure ahead of time so the side step is 8 inches or less above the surfacing and the transfer platform is 11 to 18 inches high. (See photo below).
5. Another problem with wheelchair accessibility is getting to the equipment. Too often, playgrounds have an “accessible route” right up to borders that contain loose fill surfacing, such as sand. The wheelchair users cannot get over that high border, and cannot move across the unacceptable surfacing.
Solution: Install a ramp from the accessible route into the play area, and install surfacing that provides an accessible route to a ramp or transfer system. Remember, not all surfacing has to be wheelchair accessible, just the minimum amount of the route.
6. Consider the placement of equipment in advance. In the photo below, although the slide was placed within 6 feet of the tree base (the minimum), the tree is within the “overhead obstruction” use zone of the slide. A child can fall and strike the tree.
Solution: Keep the overhead obstruction area (measured 7 feet above the surface of the slide, and 7 feet above the use zone around it) clear to prevent this type of hazard.
7. It may help installers, and the independent Certified Playground Safety Inspectors (CPSIs) who check behind them, if misinterpretations of the rules were not so common. One installer stated that a protruding bolt was exempt since he could not get to it with his grinder or a bolt-cutter, even though it was an “accessible” bolt to fall onto!
Solution: Replace protruding bolts with shorter ones.
I’ve gone behind CPSIs who pass structures that should fail, and vice versa. Realize that, if you cannot find the violation in the ASTM Standards or CPSC Guidelines, it may become a matter of professional judgment. Unfortunately, this varies from inspector to inspector, depending upon their involvement in the field, the amount of time spent doing audits, involvement in the creation of the rules, etc. For example, an owner was told by an independent CPSI to remove a slide because it was too high, which is not a rule by ASTM or CPSC. That same CPSI said there was no problem with an 8-foot-high swing placed 9 feet away from a sidewalk in its swing trajectory (which requires it to be at least 16 feet away). Bad calls can be made by anyone. But, if the installer positioned it correctly the first time, it would not be an issue.
We can all learn from each other, and if we apply that knowledge in a useful way, we will find that someone else’s findings may alleviate liability for us. More importantly, it may keep a child from becoming injured. Isn’t that what matters most?
Scott Burton owned and operated a major playground/park manufacturing company and sold it to continue being an international safety consultant. In the industry since 1981, he now owns Safety Play Inc., and travels the United States as well as overseas. He is a Certified Playground Safety Inspector and is also S.A.F.E. Certified by the National Program for Playground Safety. Burton can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.