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Playing It Safe

PIRG:  Playing It Safe:  Playgrounds Can Be Perilous

On August 22, 1995, an eight-year old girl in Neptune, New Jersey was playing on the playground in her housing complex, when she fell from the monkey bars. The fall from the 8 foot high piece of equipment caused her to die the next day from head injuries. New Jersey Assemblyman Thomas S. Smith commented, "The death...was a terrible tragedy. There are many who feel that her death could have been prevented had there been adequate protective surfacing beneath the equipment." 

On September 20, 1993, a seven-year old boy in Oakland, California was playing on his school's playground equipment, when he fell from the horizontal ladder and hit his head. Conflicting accounts report that he either hit his forehead on the side of the horizontal ladder, or on the worn out rubber pad surface exposing asphalt ground beneath the ladder. Victim was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he was released the following day, readmitted the next day, and died in the hospital five days after the incident occurred. 

One 2 1/2-year old and two four-year olds died when their heads got caught between a guard rail and the platform of climbing equipment on a public playground. In all three cases, the child was sitting on the platform with his or her legs dangling over the edge or lying face down on the platform. The child then slid off the platform under the guard rail, got his or her head trapped, and strangled to death. 

Children love to play -- especially outdoors. The outdoor environment provides unique opportunities for play and, therefore, for learning. But children can only benefit from playing outdoors if it is safe. Outdoor play equipment, in particular, poses hazards to children when it is not carefully designed or maintained.

 More and more children are injured on playgrounds each year. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), it is estimated that nearly 150,000 children are injured seriously enough to require emergency room treatment each year. Tragically, an average of 15 children die each year playing on playgrounds. Many of these deaths and injuries can be prevented if playgrounds are designed with greater attention to safety.

 Unfortunately, the federal government has opted not to set national standards for the design and construction of outdoor play equipment. Although the CPSC published a "Handbook for Public Playground Safety" (November 1991 and updated it in 1994 and again in 1997), this handbook is only a set of guidelines -- not a standard and compliance with the CPSC recommendations is not mandatory.

 The 16 years that passed between the CPSC's first set of guidelines (their 1981 handbook) and their more recent effort underscore the fact that voluntary compliance with recommendations is not good enough. Injuries and deaths related to public playground equipment -- injuries and deaths that could be prevented -- continue to occur at alarming rates. For children under the age of six, the injury rate in our country has doubled since 1980. The United States lags behind other industrialized nations in providing for safe playground equipment. Many European countries and Canada have mandatory standards. Our children deserve the same level of protection.

 In 1998, Consumer Federation of America (CFA) released the third edition of a "Report and Model Law on Public Play Equipment and Areas." The goal of CFA's report was to educate those who are responsible for and care about playgrounds -- including parents, school administrators, child care providers, parks personnel, and designers, so that they could make informed safe choices about play equipment and the layout of play areas.

 CFA's report details the hazards on playgrounds and presents safety and design criteria for safer playgrounds in the form of a model law. The provisions of the model law were based on the state of the art in 1998, for safety and design for public play equipment and areas. While no play area or piece of equipment can be made completely safe, careful design can minimize injuries and save children's lives.

 "Playing It Safe: The Fourth Nationwide Safety Survey of Public Playgrounds" follows up on the first three PIRG/CFA Playground Safety Surveys, and the CFA Report, with the results of an investigation conducted to determine the current safety conditions of public playgrounds across the country.



©1999 Public Interest Research Groups