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On Unsafe Ground

The guidelines for surfaces and equipment are clearer and more readily available than ever. So why are so many communities still struggling to create safe playgrounds?

According to the old saw, the only two constants in life are death and taxes. Data compiled over the past decade suggest that perhaps "playground injuries" ought to be added to the list. Despite the best efforts of playground equipment manufacturers and governmental and consumer agencies to combat the trend, each year the number of injuries experienced by children on playgrounds remains disturbingly constant - and disturbingly high. Depending on which consumer study you point to - and there are a host from which to choose - each year between 150,000 and 200,000 children suffer playground injuries that require hospitalization. The playgrounds appear to be the primary culprit: A 1998 update of a survey conducted by the Consumer Federation of America and the Public Interest Research Groups claimed that a stunning 87 percent of playgrounds assessed lacked appropriate protective surfacing, while another 43 percent had "unacceptable and dangerous equipment" such as cable walks, climbing ropes and heavy, metal swings in the shape of animals.

It's enough to give any parent or park and recreation coordinator serious pause. Why, after all this time and all these injuries to children, are there still so many unsafe playgrounds in America?

There's certainly no shortage of standards. The twin bibles of playground safety, a set of technical standards published by the American Society for Testing and Materials (F 1487-95) and a set of guidelines published by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, have been available since the early '90s, even though both have gone through several revisions since they first appeared. Just last year, the two agencies finally removed many of the lingering discrepancies between their playground-related materials that had confused operators, designers and manufacturers across the country. Now, for instance, both the CPSC and ASTM specifications address important safety issues such as preventing possible entanglement hazards caused by gaps between slide platforms and the sliding surface.

Yet there's little question that problems remain. "Pick a community in this country, and you can bet they're struggling with this," asserts Dave Parker, the incoming president of the National Playground Safety Institute, the division of the National Recreation & Parks Association whose responsibilities include, among other things, training and certifying individuals to inspect playgrounds. "It really comes down to economics. Many places have playground safety programs going already, but their program doesn't allow for the immediate replacement of their playground equipment."

As Parker explains, many communities find themselves facing expensive challenges that have nothing to do with playgrounds - for instance, issues like complying with federal mandates to remove and replace unsafe underground storage tanks, or finding ways to finance essential services like police, fire and garbage removal. It's not that playground safety isn't important - it's just that, as a result of limited resources and tight budgets, it's located further down the priority list.

To a certain degree, confusion over playground safety may also be a question of semantics. The playground materials published by CPSC and ASTM contain guidelines and suggested standards. Except in certain states (like Texas) that have passed legislation to give the standards some teeth, there's no penalty imposed for failing to comply - that is, until a lawsuit results.

"The things are only guidelines, so schools and parks and recreation departments feel as though they have some protection," says Travis Teague, an assistant professor of sport sciences at Wingate University. "What they may not understand is that even though these aren't mandatory standards, they are what's going to be examined in court when an injury occurs and the parents decide to sue. A jury will say that a reasonable person should have been aware of the guidelines and taken steps to make sure they were being met."

Each semester during the school year, Teague teaches a class called "Recreational and Sport Facility Design." Each semester, as part of the curriculum, his students pair off and visit public school and park and recreation department playgrounds across North Carolina, to assess how they measure up to CPSC and ASTM standards. And each semester, the students find safety violations.

Teague recalls that when he first began sending his students out three years ago, principals and maintenance engineers reacted with a combination of anguish and panic. "It's true, there were a lot of 'We're going to have shut this playground down' type of comments," remembers Teague. "At the same time, the funding isn't there to go in and replace $100,000 of playground equipment, so what they're having to do is go in steps, replacing the pieces of equipment associated with the highest levels of risk." These include pieces such as the aforementioned slides with gaps between the platform and sliding surface, multiple-occupant swings and animal-shaped metal rockers mounted on springs.

In some communities, nostalgia also becomes a stumbling block to achieving safe playgrounds. Parker says he's seen countless communities adopt what he calls an "it was good enough for my father" mentality when confronted with an inspector's report suggesting that an unsafe piece of equipment needs to be replaced. "Until the injury occurs in your backyard and you're facing a lawsuit, it's all just statistics," Parker says.

Some park and recreation departments, frustrated with waiting for budget appropriations that never materialize, are taking the issue of playground safety into their own hands. Dave Ferguson, a parks officer at the Maume State Park outside of Toledo, Ohio, is spearheading a campaign to raise the cash to install $130,000 of safe playground equipment there.

Ferguson plans to have the playground equipment manufacturer, an NPSI-certified playground inspector and a local designer help him install the equipment to make sure all safety guidelines are being met. But installing playground equipment can carry its own safety risks. If the CPSC and ASTM guidelines aren't carefully followed, even the most safely designed equipment can become deadly. "I've seen people spend $75,000 to $125,000 on equipment, and then save $4,500 installing it themselves," says Teague. "Unfortunately, once they put something together wrong or violate the manufacturer's warranty, they've opened themselves up to liability."

Parker agrees. "You can buy the best equipment in the world, but totally screw it up," he says. Parker has seen many a case in which a local PTA group, generously volunteering time to set up playground equipment, has placed two structures too close together, violating recommended fall-zone specifications and creating a hazard. "What happens in those situations is that these individuals, in placing that equipment, have defeated the safety factors built into the product by the manufacturer."

As far as Teague is concerned, getting at the issue of playground safety is really a question of examining why the equipment is there in the first place. "You have to look at what playgrounds are designed to do - for me, they're about presenting a developmentally appropriate challenge," says Teague. "The question a playground operator has to ask is, Have I taken these guidelines and tried to make sure that my equipment and surfacing meet these safety aspects, or am I just being passive, waiting for something to happen?"

The answer, unfortunately, is too often the latter. Park and recreation officials in Pittsburgh are certainly sorry they weren't more proactive in addressing playground safety issues before a nine year-old walked up to and grabbed a defective slide - which fell on her and crushed her to death. So are officials in MacDonald County in Missouri, who had to cough up $100,000 last year to the parents of a child who injured his head when he fell off a piece of playground equipment, hitting another piece that had been placed too close.

Neither of these recent cases directly involved what remains the flashpoint issue in the playground safety debate: surfacing. Given that 75 percent of playground injuries are the result of falls from equipment, it's not surprising that surfacing issues top many safety lists. On this issue, CPSC guidelines are explicit. In terms of impact attenuation, the only acceptable playground surfaces are pea gravel, sand, hardwood fiber mulch (wood chips) and synthetic rubber tiles or mats; of these, only the latter meets ADA accessibility guidelines.

But creating a safe playground surface involves more than simply choosing an appropriate surface material. It's equally important to ensure that the pea gravel or wood mulch laid down is the requisite 12 inches deep (as called for under CPSC guidelines); it also must be spread evenly and properly maintained so that it doesn't erode or become compacted. For many playground operators, these extra steps are what get overlooked, leading to disastrous results. "Usually, what we see is that someone thinks, 'OK, we need to get wood mulch, that's the correct thing to do,' " says Teague. "That's great, but if they don't have any idea of how much mulch they'll need to achieve critical height, they're still leaving themselves open to liability." Teague also commonly sees situations where a wood mulch or pea gravel surface has been allowed to disperse, exposing the concrete footings that often anchor larger pieces of stationary playground equipment like swing sets. "I can have 2 feet of wood mulch, and if I've got an exposed footing, I've really got concrete for my surface," Teague says.

Sticker shock also comes into play with surfacing, since safer surfacing materials like synthetic rubber mats and tiles can also be the most expensive. "The cost of surfacing is a real issue for folks," says Parker. "Because what they want to do is build playgrounds. They ask, 'Why does a quarter of our budget have to be wrapped up in surfacing materials.' Because we're talking about children's lives."

Recent developments in California offer a perfect example of the difficulties state and local governments run into in the pursuit of safe playgrounds. Back in 1990, the California Legislature passed a law requiring the state to adopt playground safety regulations at least as protective as the CPSC's, but that carried more bite than a simple set of guidelines. "In a nutshell, what they wanted us to do was take what was voluntary and make it mandatory," explains Barb Alberson, chief of the California State and Local Injury Control section of the State Department of Health Services.

Unfortunately, in this case, good legislative intentions arrived in the form of an unfunded mandate; with a nasty deficit tying up much of the Golden State's budgetary resources, the playground law languished for years - until a lawsuit kick-started the regulation-making process. In 1996, a young girl was seriously injured on a Sacramento playground - a young girl whose father happened to be a member of a local children's advocacy group. He subsequently sued the state for failing to comply with the 1990 law.

Even with this legal impetus, it was still another three years before the suggested regulations wound their way through the bureaucratic process. Now that the public has had several opportunities to contribute information and suggest revisions, Alberson says she expects the regulations to emerge from the secretary of state's office sometime in mid-June.

But there's still no guarantee the new regulations will make a real difference in reducing playground injuries - because the one item the original 1990 legislation failed to address was the establishment of an agency to enforce the new playground regulations.

In California, administrative responsibility for playgrounds is as fractured as a child's ankle after a fall from an unsafe slide: Social Services handles playgrounds located at day-care facilities, while the Department of Education deals with those located on school property; of those located in public parks, some are administered through the State Department of Parks and Recreation, while others fall under local governmental control.

"That's the part that has been so tough," says Alberson. "There's nothing that establishes enforcement here. It's going to be very difficult to have any sense of compliance with this, because there's no regulatory agency to keep abreast of what's going on."

On the plus side, California's new regulations also call for every playground to undergo inspection by a certified playground inspector - and it looks as though there's a good chance that will begin to occur soon. Thanks to the efforts of the California Parks and Recreation Department, a cadre of 600 NPSI-certified playground inspectors stands ready to do just that.

Whether or not those inspectors will make a measurable impact in reducing playground injuries in California remains to be seen. But it's at least one positive sign that in the battle to create safe playgrounds, critical information continues to flow freely.

And that's an important first step. "Awareness is the key," says Teague. "When a disease like polio first struck, people panicked. Maybe that's what we're in right now with playground safety. What we're trying to do is move beyond that panic and work toward knowledge."

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