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Playing It Safe
PIRG: Playing It Safe: Executive Summary
A fourth nationwide investigation of public playgrounds by the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) and Consumer Federation of America (CFA) found that a majority of American playgrounds pose hidden threats to our nation's youngsters.
Too many children are getting hurt and killed on our playgrounds. Each year, nearly 150,000 are injured seriously enough to require emergency room treatment. Tragically, an average of 15 children die each year playing on playgrounds. Many of these deaths and injuries could be prevented if playgrounds -- from equipment to surfacing to layout -- were designed with safety in mind.
In June 1998, CFA released the third edition of its "Report and Model Law on Public Play Equipment and Areas," as a blueprint for designing, building and maintaining public playgrounds. The CFA report details the hazards on playgrounds that lead to injuries and presents safety and design criteria that can reduce deaths and injuries. In the springs of 1992 (11 states), 1994 (22 states), and 1996 (25 states) PIRGs and other CFA member organizations investigated playgrounds and documented hazards posed by inadequate surfacing, obstacles, and other problems.
From March-May 1998, the PIRGs and other CFA member organizations investigated 760 playgrounds in 24 states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia) and Washington, D.C., to determine the current safety conditions of our public playgrounds.
The investigation focused on the hazards that cause the most serious playground injuries, and found the following:
- In 1998, 87% of the 760 playgrounds surveyed lacked adequate protective surfacing. Although this is about the same number, 85%, as lacked protective surfacing in 1996, we are encouraged by: (1) an increase from 5-7% in the number of playgrounds with synthetic surfaces and (2) an increase in the number of playgrounds with loose-fill surfacing, even though most of those playgrounds lacked adequate depth. Protective surfacing is the most critical safety factor on playgrounds because approximately 75% of all injuries are caused by falls.
- In 1998, 40% of slides and climbing equipment surveyed did not have an adequate fall zone under and around the play equipment. Other equipment and obstacles in the fall zone pose hazards where a child might fall.
- In 1998, 62% of playgrounds had climbers and 37% had slides where the height of the play equipment is greater than 6 feet high, which is higher than necessary for play value, and only serves to increase the risk of injury.
- In 1998, 12% of playgrounds with swings had swing seats that are made of wood, metal or other rigid material.
- In 1998, 58% of playgrounds contained swings that were either too close together or too close to swing supports.
- In 1998, in 42% of playgrounds, improperly sized openings in the play equipment posed a head entrapment hazard.
- In 1998, in 40% of playgrounds, small gaps, open S-hooks and other protrusions posed clothing entanglement hazards, in particular to hood drawstrings. This figure represents a decline from 1996, when 47% of playgrounds had clothing entanglement hazards.
- In 1998, 43% of playgrounds had unacceptable dangerous equipment, such as chain or cable walks, animal swings, individual climbing ropes or exercise rings. This figure also declined from 1996, when 51% of playgrounds contained unacceptable dangerous equipment.
Overall, this year's survey shows improvements, in particular, a continued decline in the number of playgrounds with hard surfaces under and around all play equipment. In 1992, fully 31% of playgrounds identified had cement, packed dirt or asphalt or other hard surfaces; the percentage declined to 13% in 1994, 9% in 1996 and to 8% this year. As in previous surveys, however, many playgrounds have mixed surfacing, with loose-fill, absorbent materials like hardwood chips under some equipment, and unsafe hard surfaces like soil and grass under other equipment.
Surveyors continue to note the gradual replacement of old, unsafe playgrounds with new, modern playgrounds. In Washington, DC, for example, the National Park Service has replaced several of its playgrounds, including Hains Point, and is on schedule to upgrade the others. Several mothers at new playgrounds told surveyors: "You should have been here a month ago to see the old playground."
Yet changes move slowly and, with budget constraints, many local governments may not prioritize playground safety unless parents and advocates make it an issue. Local authorities should make public playgrounds safer. One estimate showed that in Massachusetts alone, the lifetime health care costs caused by playground injuries could be conservatively estimated at $10 million each year.
To improve playground safety, PIRG and CFA offer the following recommendations:
- States and local governments should adopt CFA's "Model Law on Public Play Equipment and Areas."
- Parents, school administrators, child care providers and parks personnel should evaluate their local playgrounds and work to make each playground safer.
As a first step in evaluating the safety of a playground, parents and others can use CFA's "Parent Checklist: How Safe Is Your Local Playground?" It is found in Appendix C of this report, and is available for free to individuals by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Parent Checklist, P. O. Box 12099, Washington, D.C. 20005-0999. If any hazards are found, contact the owner or operator of the playground and demand corrective action.