Playground Safety Do's And Don'ts
No one begins in the field of playground safety as an “expert”, but oftentimes that’s what it takes to correctly identify ALL of the hazards on a playground. I often cite this comparison; you’re having a baby and need to choose a doctor to deliver it. Your choices are a doctor who has delivered thousands of babies and one who has delivered none, or just a few. I don’t know about you, but I’m going with doc with the vast experience! Expertise is the most important of the “do’s and don’ts”. Inspectors measure up your playground, but how do YOU measure up the inspector?
Let’s say you hired a consultant that’s been around and knows his or hers stuff. Great! Let’s dig a little deeper into their expertise though, like we dig into that mulch! They found some hazards, but where does their expertise come from that will tell you what to DO with that information? Are they experienced in modification recommendations? Have they manufactured playgrounds, installed them, designed them, helped write the ASTM & CPSC rules on them, etc.? Active participation in ASTM provides a great deal of understanding as to the rationale behind the rules for a better interpretation. Are they telling you to make inexpensive modifications or just replace it all with new equipment? DO hire someone with an adequate background on these experiences and modification techniques. DON’T hire someone that will not specify exactly where to find the violations in the ASTM or CPSC rules, or can’t say how to fix the hazards. DON’T hire one who is not currently a CPSI (check their status online), or is not insured for not just General Liability, but also Errors and Omissions (in case they miss a hazard, you’re covered).
How about the more subtle experiences of warning signs and labels, surfacing characteristics and properties, wheelchair (ADA) compliance, playground fencing and knowledge of the F2049 playground fencing Standard? DON’T assume the inspector practices all of these things. DO ask what they check for, and if they don’t mention some of these concerns listed, DON’T hire them? Keep shopping around! Don’t get me wrong, they all mean well, and many inspectors check for all of this and more, but some do not.
With over 400 litigation cases (Plaintiff and Defense) and auditing thousands of playgrounds nationwide, there comes different experiences presented to me than ever before. People may scoff at conclusions I’ve reached until I explain cases of a dead child at the end of a rope, or a 3 year old that burned to death, or one who lost an eyeball on a protruding fence latch that was too low. But you know what? You cannot prevent ALL injuries. Sometimes accident just happen! But we must do our best to prevent them from happening on known hazards, that’s all we can do.
DO incorporate all of the latest revisions of the ASTM and CPSC rules into your inspections. Give them about 6 months to take effect. DON’T expect the manufacturer or installer to comply with rules that were NOT in effect at the time of sale or installation. They can’t know what is coming years later and don’t have a duty to do so. The owner/operator, however, DOES have the duty to follow the most recent sets of Standards and Guidelines. Doing so has been the accepted Standard of Care for this industry. Owners can’t deny compliance to the most recent rules after being inundated with sales pitches of compliance to them, as well as the owner publishing bids with the recent revisions cited. DO expect that the version of the Standards or Guidelines that were in effect at the time of an accident to be the versions that you, the owner, had to comply with.
What about that equipment? DO make sure the inspector knows to perform the 50 lbf (pounds of force) pull test using the torso probe and a pull gauge. This will test any opening that has any flexion to it that may allow a child’s body to go feet first and the head may get stuck and cause the child to hang to death. DON’T just automatically fail openings that are 3.5” - 9” since some may still pass using the torso probe. A 5” diameter cutout in a tube crawl will not allow the torso probe, but is still in that 3.5” - 9” zone often cited as the failing range, but actually passes!
DON’T overlook the playground fencing rules stated in the ASTM F2049-11 Standard. It keeps children from being run over by vehicles, keeps them in one place for better supervision, keeps predators out, can minimize the likelihood of a vehicle crashing into the playground, and helps keep kids from escaping and drowning in a nearby body of water. These things happen a LOT!
DON’T just use a rod that you push into the loose fill surfacing to check its depth. It can surpass the bottom of the surfacing material go below the dirt level, giving false readings of surfacing depth. DO use a hard trowel and get down on your knees and dig it up until you SEE the bottom (underlayment, dirt), then measure it to the bottom of your clipboard that is laying level on top of the surfacing.
DON’T assume your surfacing is okay just because it’s “there”. I’ve experienced inspectors who have passed a playground for surfacing that was actually ½” of sand on top of a concrete slab! DO consult the CPSC (Table 2 and Figure 1) and insure that the proper layers are there.
DO pay attention to what the most stringent rules are if there’s a conflict between ASTM and CPSC. Don’t just follow a softer rule because you like it better. Inspectors and owners can incur liability if you do. There’s a LOT of hazards pointed out in the CPSC Guidelines that you don’t find in ASTM, and vice versa!
DO check those playground labels to make sure they have the right coloring (“safety blue” background for information like ages and adult supervision, orange strip along the “WARNING” panel on warning labels), are placed on the playground where they can be seen from ANY approach, etc. DON’T skimp on this. Failure to warn claims are the most frequent claim in playground litigations.