Bleacher Safety

Nearly two years have passed since 6-year-old Toby Lee of Mound, Minn., fell to his death through a 13-inch gap between the bleacher footboards and seats at a hockey game in January 1999. That no statewide standards for retrofitting bleachers have been developed since Lee's death doesn't mean that lawmakers have been sitting idle. It does, however, demonstrate the difficulty in making policy even in response to an incident that provoked widespread public outrage.

While state building codes in 1998 mandated a 9-inch or smaller gap on all new bleachers, no policy then existed for retrofitting existing bleachers.

Lawmakers hoped that a statewide standard for these facilities could help prevent future accidents and even serve as the blueprint for a national bleacher-safety standard.

But a bill passed quickly after Lee's death-which called for gaps no wider than 4 inches and guardrails on all bleacher units higher than 30 inches - soon gave way to a more watered-down version. As it stands now, facility operators will be required to ensure that:

  • All bleachers 55 inches or higher have guardrails, and
  • No non-retractable bleachers have gaps of more than 4 inches between floorboards and seats.
"I would have preferred only to extend the date for compliance rather than back away from the standards," says Sen. Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista), original sponsor of the bill. "We did a little bit of both here."

Legislators also were unable to agree on a timetable for compliance; the compliance date for retrofits, initially Jan. 1, 2001, was moved back a year, to Jan. 1, 2002. In addition, lawmakers left the issue of enforcement up in the air. As written, the law will compel facility operators to police themselves.

Many new bleacher units include guardrails on at least some higher rows, as well as narrower gaps between footboards and seats, notes Juggie Hinduja, owner of Sinclair Industries, a St. Louis-based bleacher manufacturer. But retrofits of older bleachers - for example, adding guardrails onto an old five-row bleacher unit-might carry a price tag that's higher than the bleachers themselves, Hinduja says.

Olson, however, says she's seen creative ways of defraying the costs-including the donation of materials and/or labor by local companies. At least one facility operator converted his five-row bleacher sets into three-row units, which don't require guardrails, and the League of Minnesota Cities has even created no-interest loans to help facility operators finance bleacher retrofits.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 10 deaths occurring between 1980 and 1999 were attributed to bleacher falls. Of those deaths, four were children under the age of 15, and two occurred last year (the other was a 3-year-old who fell through a guardrail opening in Texas). From 1991 through 1999, the annual number of bleacher-related injuries treated in emergency rooms across the country averaged 19,100.

In 1999 alone, 22,100 injuries were treated in emergency rooms, and roughly 6,100 of them were the result of a person falling from or through the bleachers. Nearly 5,000 of those cases involved children 15 years old or younger.

The CPSC is in the process of developing national guidelines for retrofitting bleachers that will be stricter than Minnesota's. Hinduja joined other manufacturers, members of Congress and parents of children injured or killed in bleacher falls for a roundtable discussion with CPSC officials last year. He says the guidelines should (and probably eventually will) become mandated nationwide. "I'm surprised it's taken this long," he says.