Inspect, Renovate, Replace

This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

Every year, more than 20,000 adults and children are injured—and some are killed—in accidents involving bleachers and other types of seating for which parks and recreation departments are responsible.

Unfortunately, there are too many examples of the consequences of a lack in maintenance: a 2-year-old slipped through the opening in out-of-code bleachers in Kentucky and died from the injuries; a 6-year-old died after falling from unsafe bleachers in Minnesota, leading to replacement of hundreds of sets of bleachers across the state; in 2012, five children died in falls from bleachers.

In my research for this article, I found no accurate inventory of older, dangerous sets of bleachers in the U.S. If someone knows of such a study, please share it with me or the magazine editor so we can disseminate it.

In the hectic life of a parks and rec maintenance team, bleachers and seating can fall behind other items on a priority safety checklist; however, like playgrounds, fields, and a myriad of other safety checks, seating is critically important.

In the meantime, if parks and rec professionals aren’t taking bleacher and seating safety seriously, they are putting their users potentially in life-threatening situations and their organizations at risk. 

Lack Of Funds

In 2001, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued new guidelines for retrofitting older bleachers; unfortunately, many of those safety concerns have yet to be addressed, according to Keven Moore, director of Risk Management Services for Roeding Insurance in Kentucky. 

Writing in KyForward, an online newspaper in Kentucky, Moore explains, “While inspecting and completing safety audits for public schools … I still run across minor to very serious safety issues, especially at the older schools.  Unfortunately … they simply don’t have the funds to correct the problems.”

This risk-management expert says insurance carriers who underwrite liability exposures are beginning to apply pressure to retrofit or replace many of the older and dangerous bleachers: “It is their assets on the line, after all, in the event of a serious injury or fatality.”

While Moore makes a valid point, I tend to see the issue from a more humanistic perspective; I would not want to be the parks and rec director who has to try to explain to parents why their child has been injured—or worse—in a situation that could have been avoided by preventive-maintenance measures—or by finding and spending the funds necessary to ensure safety.

While bleachers are most often associated with injuries, any type of seating in a parks and rec inventory can hold the same level of risk. Rotting wood or protruding nails on old park benches, jagged rivets on folding metal chairs in an event center, loose fittings on amphitheater seats—literally, anywhere the public is provided seating by a governmental entity becomes a potential danger zone.

 Moore spoke to one school superintendent who said it wasn’t that he didn’t want to comply with requirements but his hands were tied as he simply didn’t have the funds.

Safety Inspections

Ultimately, the job of keeping people safe in their seats depends on frequent inspections. A head-in-the-sand approach won’t get the job done. Regular inspections will often uncover unexpected issues.

Chad DeBoer is the sales manager at Kay Park Recreation, a company that has manufactured public seating since 1954. “As far as maintenance inspections, you have to look at the fasteners, the hardware, and the integrity of the uprights and support structures,” he notes. 

He cites one example near the company’s headquarters in Janesville, Iowa, where thieves were unbolting the X-braces under bleachers, stealing them, and selling them for scrap. “There’s a good chance nobody is going to notice things like this unless routine inspections are conducted,” he says. “If too many of the braces are missing, the structure will become unsafe at some point.”

DeBoer says that many people are now wrapping the back and sides of bleachers with wind screen, which serves two purposes—it prevents people from casually wandering under bleachers, but it also is a visual cue to let maintenance staff see if anyone has been tampering with the screening.

DoBoer adds that it’s common for parks and rec departments to use older bleachers because there aren’t enough funds to replace them.  “What often happens is that insurance assessors will survey the entire city to determine where liabilities exist, and they identify the bleachers as one of them,” says DeBoer. “They recommend either repair or replacement … it is a very common theme.”

He suggests that the majority of departments have three- and five-row bleacher sets because they are less expensive, and they are a better fit for their needs. “Most rec fields don’t need seating for 500 or more,” he says. “Three 50-seaters work just fine. However, many of the older three- and five-rowers don’t have the guard rail around them, which at a minimum needs to be retrofitted in order to come up to code.”

Smaller bleachers are often moved around from one field to another as need dictates; however, in moving the bleachers around, they can become damaged. Welds are broken, seats become loose, and the seating can become twisted and not sit flush to the ground.

Portable Bleachers

Many departments are moving towards portable bleachers, which have been in use for nearly 20 years. “These are a great option to consider if you need to move bleachers from site to site,” says DeBoer. “They are built to be moved, with a separate axle just like any other trailer.” 

Portable bleachers have hydraulic folding mechanisms, heavy I-Beam main frames, and can be folded, towed, and unfolded without any damage. In fact, some departments are using this type of bleachers as a revenue source. For example, Clark County, Nev., advertises mobile bleachers for rent for sporting competitions, parades, exhibitions, graduations, and other special events. They can also produce revenue from rentals.

Enclosed For Safety

David Hadley, the Parks Superintendent in Rifle, Colo., is responsible for care and maintenance of the new 600-capacity bleachers at Deerfield Regional Park, where, among other amenities, there are two soccer fields, four softball fields, and two baseball fields. The city recently received a $350,000 grant for park improvements, including new seating for the renovated Cooper baseball field.

“This is a totally closed bleacher system, which makes trash pickup easier and keeps people from falling through,” says Hadley, noting that there are about 15 tiers, so a fall could be fatal. Of course, the new seating is totally ADA-compliant and has railings all the way around for maximum safety.

Hadley and his crew took safety a step further. “We wrapped the entire back and sides with chain-link fence so there is none of this climbing under the bleachers,” he says. “We added a customized gate with a heavy-duty padlock so we can get under the bleachers for inspections and cleanup.”

The facility will also be used by the local high-school baseball team and will be rented out, so controlling under-bleacher access is a good move.

Hadley and his seven full-time and several seasonal maintenance crew members are also responsible for 12 other parks, plus a cemetery. Most of the other bleachers are smaller five-tiers, but he notes that they minimize moving them. “We generally only move them to clean under them,” he says, adding that this ensures minimal wear and tear. “We conduct a daily checklist, inspecting hardware, checking for loose bolts or braces. The grandstands at Cooper Field get special treatment.”

Hadley notes that in the off-season he and his crew perform routine maintenance on seating: repairing, repainting, rust-proofing and possibly re-welding bracing if needed. It’s a good practice and will ensure that the bleachers look better and last longer.

Bleachers and other seating in recreation facilities should not be scary or dangerous. They are meant for spectators or participants who simply need a place to sit. Parks and rec professionals shouldn’t have to bear that burden of concern either, which is why frequent inspections, reporting of needed repairs, and budgeting for future replacements is what’s needed to lower the number of injured or worse from inadequate bleachers or other seating down to zero.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email