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The concept of what is safe on the playground has changed drastically from the 1940's and the decades that followed, when asphalt was recommended as the surface of choice under play equipment because it was easily maintained and considered to be safer than concrete. Today we understand the severity of injury that can be caused by impact with a hard surface, and we no longer use asphalt as playground surfacing. Nor do we use maypoles and whirls with openings in the platforms. Reputable indoor playground manufacturers are no longer providing slides that empty into the ubiqutous ball pools included in many indoor party centers and children's entertainment centers because of the potential for kids to end up on top of each other or worse. It is therefore, critical to examine playground equipment, design and construction.
Since 1981, when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued its first set of guidelines for making public playgrounds safer, we have seen a major increase in the number of lawsuits instituted for playground injuries against park departments and school districts. The contents of the 1991 CPSC Handbook for Public Playground Safety served as the criteria against which playground equipment could be measured, and this publication has become the state-of-the-art source for accident claims. Little attention was paid, initially, to this Handbook, since the publication provided recommendations or guidelines, not mandated regulations. But, as the Handbook gained credibility in the courts, it became obvious that, mandated or not, adherence to the Handbook recommendations were critical. Those who chose to ignore them were vulnerable to negligence charges for failing to use federal guidelines to make safer play environments for their children.
In November, 1991, the CPSC issued a revised version of the Handbook, with critical changes from the 1981 edition. The most important of these changes addressed a new age grouping. The earlier guidelines were written for equipment to service the 5 to 12 year olds; the 1991 version now included safety recommendations for ages 2 to 12 years. As a result, there have been changes in rung spacings, to include the head and body measurement of the preschooler, to prevent head entrapment and strangulation on the equipment. Several play components, such as sliding poles and full arch ladders, were not recommended for the under 5 users; different recommendations for each age group were given for guard rails and protective barriers.
In 1986 the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) created a task group to develop a standard for outdoor playground surfacing, the cause of a majority of severe injuries in the playground falls. In 1988 the ASTM approved a new committee, F15.29, to develop a set of safety standards for public playgrounds and play areas. And, on 1990, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, after commissioning a study and a review of the existing guidelines, and surfacing testing, issued a report on safety surfacing and began revisions on the 1981 Handbook.
In April of 1991 the ASTM published a new standard for playground surfacing. The standard, F1292, provided the testing methods necessary to test the shock absorbing properties of surfacing, to measure the impact attenuation abilities of a playground surface. The G-max for the test is 200 (as previously recommended by the CPSC), and the laboratory tests are clearly defined. This standard is primarily directed to the producers of playground surfaces, and they will then be able to certify to purchasers that their products meet the 200g benchmark.
The CPSC and the ASTM, working together, have developed a comprehensive package for the public. The CPSC revised its guidelines, which were published in November, 1991. These quidelines carry many changes. The new Handbook is only one volume, directed to the public. The technical information on public use playground equipment safety has now been published by ASTM. The new standard, F1487-93, contains the measurements and testing procedures for public playground equipment, as well as use zones and maintenance requirements.
3. The CPSC Handbook identifies tripping hazards as concrete footings, horizontal bars at the bottom of flexible climbers, and for environmental obstacles (rocks, roots). ASTM calls for the installation of anchoring devices for flexible climbers and indoor playgrounds to be installed below ground, but the only tripping point it actually identifies is the support posts for balance beams.
4. The CPSC Handbook calls for brightly colored contrasting cables, wires, ropes, etc., to be suspended between components within 45 degrees of horizontal at a height of seven feet. ASTM adds a minimum dimension of one inch at the widest cross-section dimension of the flexible components, which may be suspended below seven feet.
5. The CPSC Handbook recommends that rung ladders, climbing nets, arch climbers and tire climbers not be used as sole access to preschool equipment. ASTM requires that net, chain or tire climbers not be used as sole means of access to any equipment, but does allow flexible climbing devices for preschoolers as long as the user can bring both feet to the same level before continuing the ascent.
For park and rec departments in consideration of outdoor playground equipment, probably the most valuable service which the 1991 Handbook provides is the clarification of what kind of depth of surface is needed under play equipment for reducing injury severity in falls. For the first time it is possible to determine which loose bulk surface would be best for specific pieces, depending on the height of the equipment. And the CPSC tells us how to measure the "critical fall height" from equipment (from the platform itself, if a protective barrier surrounds the platform, or from the top of the guardrail, if the guardrails are used).
One area not included by CPSC is addressed by ASTM, and that is the issue of safety while providing accessibility to the physically challenged. Note should be taken of the fact that, as of this printing, there are no federal compliance regulations, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, that address playground equipment. There is, however, a compliance requirement to make the playground surfaces accessible, and that requirement has been in place for many years.
When considering a playground structure for an indoor family fun center or other indoor application, ASTM and CPSC are the only guidelines that playground manufacturers must "voluntarily" adhere to. This can create some non-compliance issues when working with off-shore manufacturers and even those price competitive manufacturers here in North America. Once the play structure is wrapped in post-padding, vinyl cushions and decking it is very difficult for the unschooled amusement buyer to know whether or not the strutcure is 100% compliant or not. Certainly these structures are safe with regards to loads and capacities, but in some cases pinch-points, head-gaps, angle of decent from slides and some other activities, (slides into ball pools for one) push the guidelines to the very edge.
In this image - not only are there two slides into the ball pool, apparently kids are encouraged to come down head first. As fun as this might be for kids (even I would like to give it a go...) this can be very dangerous. Children coming down slides into ball pools can be blinded from the fact that there may be another kid sitting in the balls at the edge of the slide playing. There have been reported cases where in this scenario a child was paralyzed when another came sliding down into their neck and shoulders, causing paralysis. As stated above, most playground manufacturers no longer build slides like this.
The concern for children's playground safety has been escalating over the last few years, but the response and strategies for providing that safety have also been increasing. And the uniquely cooperative work of the three organizations most concerned with safety - NRPA, CPSC and ASTM - have made possible the success with which we are now improving our play areas so that they will provide both a safer and accessible environment in which our children can play, learn and grow.
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