Playgrounds: managing your risk – Cover Story

Travis L. Teague

Since their inception, playgrounds have been designed to provide children with a series of developmentally appropriate physical challenges, allowing them to progress at their own pace. However, by progressing at their own pace, children sometimes exceed their capabilities and become injured; approximately 170,000 children are injured on playgrounds throughout the United States each year. The majority of life-threatening injuries result from falls from equipment, impact with moving equipment entanglement of clothing, and head entrapment. Many of these injuries can be prevented by the proper design and maintenance of playground facilities.

In the past, playground injuries were discounted as accidents, or even a lack of physical skill on the part of the child. This is no longer the case. Now, the American public has a much greater understanding of the legal system, at least to the point of being aware that sizable financial awards are commonplace when it comes to negligence cases.

The basis for these cases, and much of our current playground safety standards, is the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Handbook and the American Society for Materials and Testing (ASTM) Standard. Although these documents are designed to be guidelines for voluntarily compliance, a court will likely rule that these standards should have been used by a “reasonable and prudent” playground operator; the primary determination in most negligence cases being whether there was “reasonable and prudent action.” Since litigation is a very real concern for recreation professionals, what can be done to reduce the number of accidents that occur on playgrounds? There is no simple answer, however, a large part of the solution lies in developing and implementing a comprehensive risk management program. Risk management programs are designed to reduce the frequency and severity of injuries, as well as reduce the chances of undue financial burdens being placed on the organization as a result of litigation.

Develop A Mission Statement

The initial step in creating a risk management plan for your playground is to develop a mission statement regarding the objectives for playground staff. This statement should include information relating to specific program goals, such as developing physical or social skills in children, as well as, safety issues that exist on each particular playground. The mission statement is designed to give the program purpose and direction, while also reminding playground personnel of the importance of maintaining a safe environment. It is critical that all playground personnel be familiar with the mission statement and know that they have a vital part in achieving the stated goals. Remember, the employees are the key to making a risk management plan succeed.

There are some risk management concerns that should be addressed when selecting and purchasing equipment for your playground. It is important to always go back to your mission statement. Does the type of equipment being considered complement your mission? The intended equipment must meet all CPSC and ASTM guidelines for safety and design. Before purchasing, ask questions regarding the safety record of the particular piece of equipment.

Most reputable equipment manufacturers publish such information in their sales materials. Another issue is the age of the children who will be using the equipment. The CPSC indicates that preschool and school-age children should have age-specific equipment to meet their different developmental needs.

Finally, it is of critical importance that the manufacturer provide all warranties and maintenance information regarding each piece of equipment. This information should be filed, and materials regarding scheduled maintenance should be precisely followed.

A growing area of concern lies in the assembly or construction of playground, by school and civic organizations for the benefit of the community. Because of tight budgets in the schools and municipal governments, funding for playgrounds is becoming more difficult to obtain. In many instances, these organizations are turning to private citizens and businesses for assistance in building their playground facilities. Local stores donate lumber and other materials, and a number of citizens and interested parents help in the construction of the playground. This type of volunteerism should be applauded, however, this may also be a recipe for litigation. Who is responsible in the event of an injury? Do these playgrounds meet CPSC/ASTM guidelines? These are questions that need to be considered before such a project is initiated. Generally, it is recommended that homemade equipment not be used in public Playgrounds because of these legal concerns.

Installation Risks

Another area where risks can be reduced is in equipment installation. Playground operators must be familiar with a number of factors relating to installation: placing the equipment in the correct location, selecting the proper surface underneath the equipment and in some cases determining the correct orientation of the equipment with regard to the movement of the sun and other pieces of equipment.

Personnel involved with placing the equipment on the playground should have a through knowledge of CPSC/ASTM standards regarding this issue. For example, the more active areas of the playground should be separated from those areas considered passive, such as sandboxes or benches. It is also recommended that since younger children (2-5 years) require different types of equipment than older children (5-12 years), these areas should also be clearly separated on the playground. In addition, moving equipment – swings or merry-go-rounds – should be placed near the perimeter of the playground area.

It is strongly recommended that a manufacturer representative install the equipment and provide a written statement indicating that all equipment meets the CPSC/ASTM standards. Playground operators should never alter the design or installation of equipment without the written approval of the manufacturer. Alterations can invalidate the warranty, as well as Place liability for injuries on the playground operator.

Maintaining the Playground

Any proper risk management program involves proactive maintenance. Proactive maintenance involves four steps that should be followed in order: 1) Identify Potential playground risks. 2) Evaluate these risks according to frequency and severity. 3) Make a decision regarding each risk. 4) Evaluate those decisions and modify the program if necessary.

Foremost, the risks associated with each piece of playground equipment must be identified, through inspection. Playground staff members must conduct both informal and formal inspections. Informal inspections involve daily tasks such as picking up trash or smoothing an uneven surface material; it is critical that such informal inspections are carried out by all personnel responsible for playground supervision.

Formal inspections are much more comprehensive in nature. Playground operators should develop and implement detailed inspection checklists that are to be carried out at regularly scheduled intervals. The frequency of these formal inspections will depend on the type of equipment, the amount of use and the local climate, and should be conducted by persons who are knowledgeable of the CPSC/ASTM standards. Preferably all inspectors will be certified and armed with suitable inspection equipment, such as head entrapment probes and protrusion gauges.

When identifying potential equipment risks, it is important that playground operators and staff have a uniform method of reporting potential hazards. AN reports should be in written form and submmitted to a particular individual; word-of-mouth reporting does not yield sufficient results.

Once potential risks have been identified, the playground operator must then evaluate each risk according to frequency and severity. Each piece of equipment or area of the playground is examined with regard to how many times (frequency) an injury is likely to occur. Severity refers to the degree of injury that is usually suffered in the event of an accident. For example, a slide with an exposed concrete footing would be considered a high risk area. Many children (high frequency) using this particular slide each day increases the chances of a child falling from the platform and striking his or her head on the exposed concrete footing. A potential fife threatening injury may result (severity). Each item playground area should be examined in this manner when evaluating potential risks.

Decision Time

Once each potential risk is the playground operator must make decisions regarding how the risk will be treated. One such decision may be avoiding the risk. This simply means that the individual piece of equipment is removed from the playground because of its potential risk. Often, the fear of litigation causes many playgrounds to close completely. This should not be an option when it comes to playground risk management. Remember the mission statement that is designed to guide the program. For many children, the playground offers not only an area where developmentally appropriate activities have been designed for their use, but also one of the few opportunities to develop social skills through interaction with other youth. Avoiding of the risk – removing a swing set or merry-go-round – can and should be done if the risk of injury is high. However, the option of permanently closing a playground can deprive a community’s children and will perhaps have long-term ramifications in later anti-social behaviors.

Instead, playground operators can accept and reduce the risks on their playgrounds. Risk acceptance involves the knowledge that risks do exist, and the assumption of responsibility for those associated risks.

This does not mean, however, that a person simply decides not to perform scheduled maintenance or leaves a dangerous piece of equipment on the playground accepts the risks of such behavior.

With this option, the playground operator should have a thorough knowledge of playground safety standards and apply this knowledge to all decisions.

Most playground activities – by nature – involve a degree of risk. The benefit of an appropriately designed playground is to expose children to a controlled risk environment, allowing them to challenge themselves physically, without risking serious injury.

Proactive maintenance and safety inspections involve continual evaluation of the decisions regarding playground areas and equipment. Playground operators have the responsibility to remain current on safety issues and changing standards that are made available. A site history of each playground should be developed indicating which pieces of equipment or areas involve the most injuries. This will allow the playground operator to base future decisions on actual data, rather than speculation.


Equipment documentation cannot be over-stressed. All manufacturer’s warranties and maintenance schedules must be kept on file. Proactive maintenance measures, such as formal inspections and reapplication of surface materials, should be documented and kept in a specific file. This W of information can be vital in the event of litigation.

All playground supervisors should have a uniform method of reporting and documenting accidents that occur on the playground. Accident forms should include specific information including and addresses of witnesses, how particular piece of equipment was being used, and photographs of the accident site.

It is the responsibility of the playground operator to provide an environment where children can safely participate developmentally appropriate activities. By developing a sound program philosophy and implementing a comprehensive risk management program, the playground operator will not only reduce the chances of litigation, but more importantly, reduce injuries to children.

COPYRIGHT 1996 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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