Helmut Schmidt, Published September 05 2010
Playground safety not child’s play
The issue of playground safety was raised last week after a third-grader took a scary fall at a West Fargo school playground.
The girl involved ended up being OK, but she can now be counted among the more than 200,0000 youngsters injured on playgrounds in the U.S. annually, according to the National Recreation and Park Association.
About 15 children die a year of those injuries, NRPA said.
For all that, inspections aren’t mandated by North Dakota, Minnesota or federal laws, according to officials with Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead schools, the Fargo Park District and Moorhead Parks and Recreation.
Rather, insurance requirements and liability concerns mean certified inspectors – some on staff, others hired – examine playgrounds at least once a year, the officials said. Other employees then do more frequent inspections.
“Nobody wants to be sued, but even more important, we don’t want anyone to get hurt,” said Dan Bacon, director of property services and transportation for the Moorhead School District.
Most accidents, 79 percent, are due to falls, the NRPA says, so cushioning surfaces such as wood chips are checked to be sure they’re thick enough to prevent serious injuries, the metro officials contacted said.
Pete Diemert, director of buildings and grounds for the West Fargo School District, is glad to get input from children and parents.
“We depend on everybody to let us know if there’s a problem,” Diemert said.
The officials contacted said they have playgrounds installed by manufacturers or specialty firms to federal Consumer Product Safety Commission standards.
The Fargo Park District also uses American Society for Testing and Materials standards for cushioning materials, said Director of Parks Dave Leker.
Lowell Wolff, an assistant to the superintendent for the Fargo School District, said playground safety means using common sense.
“It’s not uncommon to see a swing designed for a single person have two or three kids on it and pushing it where it’s always horizontal to the ground,” Wolff said. “Even the best-designed materials can be overtaxed.”
And supervision by parents is important, especially for younger children, officials said.
Here are the National Playground Safety Institute’s “Dirty Dozen” hazards to watch out for:
- Surfaces should be soft, such as wood fiber or chips, sand or pea gravel or various rubber products and 12 inches deep.
- Each piece of equipment needs at least 6 feet of open space around it.
- Equipment taller than 30 inches needs 9 feet between structures. Use areas should not overlap.
- Protrusion and entanglement hazards should be monitored. Look out for bolt ends that extend more than two threads beyond a nut, hardware that forms a hook or leaves a gap, open “S” hooks and rungs that protrude from a support. Ropes should be anchored at both ends.
- Entrapment openings; some openings may be large enough to allow a child’s legs and torso through but can trap the head. Look at the top of slides, between platforms or fence-type boundaries.
- Trip hazards: concrete footings, rocks, abrupt changes in elevation, tree roots and stumps.
- Play areas should be designed so parents and caregivers can observe.
E Preschoolers should not use free-standing arch climbers, flexible climbers, chain and cable walks, seesaws, log rolls, or vertical sliding poles.
- Look for vandalism and missing, loose, broken or worn-out components.
- Watch out for sharp edges or points or parts that can crush fingers.
- Platforms should have guardrails or barriers.
- Avoid heavy animal swings, multiple-person gliders, free-swinging ropes, swinging exercise rings and trapeze bars.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583