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Playing It Safe

PIRG:  Playing It Safe:  Results of the Investigation: The Nation's Playgrounds Pose Hidden Hazards

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.

 It was recommended that volunteers visit the same playgrounds as those included in the 1996 survey. They were also encouraged to visit additional playgrounds and to visit a random mix of new, old, good and bad playgrounds. The same survey instrument was used with a few differences: the fall zone area between adjacent pieces of equipment (higher than 30 inches) was changed to a minimum of 6 feet to reflect the CPSC fall zone area (question #2); a question on peeling, chipping or cracked paint was added (question #3); and shredded tires was added as a type of surfacing loose-fill material (question #1). See Appendix D for a copy of the survey instrument. Because we surveyed an additional 198 playgrounds in 1998, our data are not strictly statistically comparable to 1996, but do provide some general trends about playgrounds across the country. 

The investigation focused on the hazards which cause the most serious playground injuries: falls, impact with moving swings, head entrapment, and entanglement.

 This year's survey found improvements from the results of our 1992, 1994 and 1996 surveys, although widespread hazards still exist at playgrounds around the country. 


Many design strategies can minimize the injuries and deaths caused by falls. Three strategies are: (1) maintaining adequate protective surfacing, (2) removing other equipment and obstacles from areas where a child might fall (the "fall zones"), and (3) limiting the height of play equipment.


Protective surfacing under and around all play equipment is the most critical safety factor on playgrounds, yet the investigation found that a majority of the playgrounds surveyed lack adequate protective surfacing. In 1998, 87% of the 760 playgrounds surveyed lack adequate protective surfacing. 

Table #1: Protective Surfacing Results
1994 1996 1998
% Playgrounds With Adequate Protective Surface
Loose Fill of depth greater than 9 inches (wood chips, mulch, sand, etc.) 3% 10% 6%
Unitary Synthetic Surfacing 5% 5% 7%
Total Adequate 8% 15% 13%
% Playgrounds With Inadequate Protective Surface
Loose Fill of inadequate depth (less than 9 inches) 60% 61% 58%
Hard Surfaces (cement, asphalt, grass, packed soil, etc.) 13% 9% 8%
Mixed Hard and Loose Fill Surfaces 19% 15% 22%
Total Inadequate 92% 85% 87%

Falls from play equipment may cause life-threatening head impact injuries. The surfacing on which a falling child lands is a major determinant of the injury-causing potential of the fall. Protective surfacing cannot prevent all injuries due to falls, but it can help reduce both the frequency and severity of injuries. Falls onto a resilient surface are less likely to result in a life- threatening injury. The greater the resiliency of the surface, the greater the safety.

Hard Surfaces Are Unacceptable

Protective surfacing materials should cushion a fall. Hard or paved surfaces such as concrete and asphalt as well as earth surfaces including grass, soil and hard packed dirt are not acceptable, because they do not provide adequate protection against falls. Falls onto concrete or asphalt from as low as 2 inches can cause life threatening head injuries.

  • Eight percent of playgrounds had hard surfaces, representing a small change from the 9% we reported in 1996. 
  • An additional 22% of playgrounds had a mixture of hard and loose fill surfaces. This is up from 15% in 1996.


This increase in playgrounds with a mixed hard and loose-fill surfaces may not represent a bad trend. Surveyors noted in many cases that a playground that contained, for example, worn grass under one piece of equipment, such as swings, also had adequate loose fill surface under a new piece of equipment, such as a climber. It appeared in these cases that as a new piece of equipment was added to the playground that adequate surfacing was installed under it. In other cases, it appeared that there were attempts to add loose-fill surfacing, regardless of the age of equipment, and a decision was made to install it under certain pieces of equipment at adequate depths rather than spread it over the entire playground at an inadequate depth.

 Maintained Loose Fill Materials And Synthetic Surfaces Are Acceptable (1) LOOSE FILL: Acceptable protective surfacing materials include certain loose-fill materials -- such as hardwood chips -- when properly maintained at depths of at least 9 to 12 inches. 

  • While 64% (480) of all playgrounds had a loose fill surface, only 6% (42) of all playgrounds (8% of the loose fill playgrounds) maintained the surface at an adequate depth.


  • Of the other 92% (438) of loose-fill playgrounds with inadequate depths of loose- fill surfacing, 14% (61) had loose-fill depths of 6-9 inches. These playgrounds may be making attempts to provide adequate surfacing; compaction, decomposition, and displacement, in addition to inadequate depths at installation, can all contribute to depths below 9 inches.


(2) SYNTHETIC SURFACES: Certain unitary synthetic surfaces -- such as premolded rubber tiles -- can also meet impact requirements.

  • 7% of the playgrounds have synthetic surfacing under and around all of the equipment, up from 5% in 1996.



A fall zone is the area under and around a piece of play equipment where a child might fall. To reduce injuries, protective surfacing should be installed throughout the fall zone, and the fall zone should be free of other equipment or obstacles onto which a child might fall.

 Climbing Equipment and Slides: Approximately 32 percent of all injuries associated with public playground equipment involve climbers. Almost all climber-related injuries are due to falls. Of all injuries on climbers, 80 percent are sustained by children over the age of six. In fact, climbers are the type of equipment most frequently implicated in playground injuries for children six and older -- which may be explained in part by older children's boldness to experiment with creative climbing techniques. Within this age group, climbers account for 41 percent of all equipment- related injuries.

 Stationery climbing equipment should have a fall zone extending a minimum of 6 feet in all directions from the perimeter of the equipment. 

Slides account for almost 30 percent of all public playground equipment-related injuries. Of all injuries sustained on slides, one-half are associated with falls to the surface below the equipment, and another one-fourth involve falls onto other parts of the equipment. Falls from the platform, from the top of the slide, and from the top portion of the slide chute are most common. Falls also often occur as children climb ladders that access slide structures. When compared to other types of equipment, slides tend to have higher rates of serious head injuries.

 Slides should have a fall zone extending a minimum of 6 feet in all directions from the perimeter of the equipment.

  • For slides and climbers, 40% of equipment surveyed did not have an adequate fall zone.


Swings: Swings are involved in about 26 percent of all injuries related to public playground equipment. Falls account for approximately two-thirds of swing injuries, most being falls to the surface.

 The fall zone for swings should extend a minimum of 6 feet from the perimeter of the support structure on each side as well as a minimum distance of twice the height of the pivot point in front of and behind the swing seats.

  • In 41% of the playgrounds with swings, the swings did not have an adequate fall zone.



While increasing the height of the equipment does not necessarily increase challenge or play value, it always increases hazard. Limiting the height of play equipment is an essential means of reducing the frequency and severity of injury. 

Climbing Equipment: The highest climbing member, such as a rung or platform, of climbing equipment should not be higher than 6 feet for school-age children or 4 feet for preschool-age children.

  • In 62% of the 719 playgrounds with heights reported for climbing equipment, the climbing equipment is more than 6 feet high. 


Slides: The platform of a slide should not be higher than 6 feet for school-age children or 4 feet for preschool-age children.

  • In 37% of the 704 playgrounds with heights reported for slides, the slide is more than 6 feet high, a decline from 1996, when 45% of slides were higher than 6 feet.



Impact with moving swings causes one-fourth of all swing injuries. Children under the age of six are those most often injured during moving impact incidents. Given certain cognitive and perceptual limitations, young children may unknowingly put themselves in a dangerous position. Young children often do not pay attention to things outside their direct view. A moving swing, for example, that is outside of direct sight lines may go unnoticed. Further, young children commonly center on a single idea or event. As a result, injuries often occur because young children inadvertently walk into the path of a moving swing while concentrating on other activities. The typical scenario involves a young child walking in front of or behind a moving swing and getting hit, either by the seat itself or by a child in the seat. Injuries to the head and face are, therefore, common.

 Spacing Between Swings Overall, in 1998, 58% of playgrounds with swings included swings that posed one or more of the following number and spacing hazards that could increase the risk that a child will be hit by a moving swing. 

Swings should be 24 or more inches apart.

  • 23% of playgrounds had at least one swing set where swings were too close together.

Swings should be at least 30 inches from swing supports.

  • 26% of playgrounds had at least one swing set where swings were closer, a decline from 31% in 1996.

Swings should be spaced no more than 2 swings per bay.

  • 31% of playgrounds had one or more swing sets with more than two swings per bay, a decline from 38% in 1996.


Tot/Infant Swing Spacing Tot/infant swings should not be mixed with swings intended for older children.

  • 15% of playgrounds mixed tot/infant and other swings, a decline from 22% in 1996. 


Swing Seats All swing seats should be made of lightweight, impact-absorbing materials, such as rubber, to reduce the severity of injuries if impact incidents do occur.

  • In 12% of playgrounds with swings, the swing seats are made of wood, metal or other rigid material, about the same number as in 1996 (10%), but down significantly from 1994, when 26% of swings were made of rigid material.



Even playgrounds that look safe to parents -- those that have protective surfacing, adequate space around equipment, and swings that are designed to minimize impact injuries -- may present hidden hazards, like head entrapment. For example, rungs spaced five inches apart on a piece of climbing equipment may not readily appear dangerous, but do pose a strangulation hazard. A child could enter the opening between the rungs feet first and then not be able to withdraw her head because the opening is too small. 

Head and neck entrapment presents a very serious risk of death by strangulation for young children and, therefore, warrants extra precaution. Any opening -- except those where the ground serves as its lower boundary -- with an interior dimension between 3.5 inches and 9 inches may cause head entrapment. Entrapment may occur when a child enters an opening, either head or feet first, but cannot withdraw his or her head because the opening is too small.

  • In 42% of playgrounds, the play equipment poses a head entrapment hazard, declining again, from 55% of playgrounds in 1994 and 46% of playgrounds in 1996.



Protrusions and projections on play equipment or gaps, holes or other openings in the play equipment can cause serious injury or death by strangulation if such hazards can entangle children's clothing. Many protrusions, projections and gaps can be eliminated through the design of the equipment or by recessing or countersinking potential hazards such as connecting hardware. Special attention to protrusions, projections, gaps, openings and holes which may present entanglement hazards at the top of slides is warranted. Jackets or clothing with hoods and/or drawstrings have been implicated in such entanglement strangulation incidents.

  • In 40% of playgrounds, open S-hooks, gaps, protrusions and other features that may act as hooks or catch points posed clothing entanglement hazards, a decline from 47% in 1996.



Certain types of equipment should not be included in public play areas. 

Animal swings, multiple occupancy swings (gliders), swinging exercise rings, and trapeze bars are constructed of heavy, hard-hitting, rigid materials that may cause serious head impact injuries. 

  • In 1998, 4% of all playgrounds had animal swings, identical to the number found in 1996, but down from 19% of the playgrounds surveyed in 1992 and 11% in 1994.


  • In 1998, 3% of all playgrounds had multiple occupancy swings or gliders.


  • In 1998, 23% of all playgrounds had swinging exercise rings or trapeze bars.


Rope swings present children with a free hanging rope that poses a strangulation hazard.

  • In 1998, 4% of all playgrounds had a climbing rope or rope swing.


Track rides, because they are hard to maintain and are difficult for children to use, present a risk of injury from falls. 

  • In 1998, 13% of all playgrounds had a track ride. This is a significant increase from 1996, when only 6% of playgrounds reported one.


Chain or cable walks present tripping hazards. Further, if not well maintained they provide children with a chain or cable attached only on one end which presents the risk of strangulation. 

  • In 1998, 17% of playgrounds, down from 28% in 1996, had a chain or cable walk.


Rotating or swinging gates may cause impact or fall-related injuries.

  • 6% of all playgrounds had a rotating or swinging gate.



Testing by the CPSC and some state and local jurisdictions has shown that many school, park and community playgrounds across the United States have metal and wooden playground equipment that presents a potential lead paint poisoning hazard primarily for children six years and younger.

 CPSC testing revealed that some equipment was painted with lead paint, and over time, the paint has deteriorated into chips and dust containing lead. In a survey of 26 playgrounds, CPSC found that 62% had lead levels that could exceed the amount used by the federal government to determine lead hazards. The lead paint chips and lead dust may be ingested by children six years and younger who put their hands on the equipment while playing, and then put their hands in their mouths. Older children and adults are less likely to be at risk because they do not exhibit this same behavior. 

Ingestion of lead paint is a major source of lead poisoning for children six years old and younger. Deteriorating lead paint in homes is the leading cause of lead poisoning in children. The health effects of lead ingestion are cumulative. In children, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, hearing problems,a nd growth retardation have been associated with sustained blood lead levels as low as 10 micrograms per decaliter (ug/dl).

 In addition, CPSC has given guidance on how to conduct a lead hazard assessment for playground equipment. The first step of such an assessment is a visual inspection to determine if there are any areas of paint that are cracking or peeling. CPSC notes that special attention should paid to equipment that was installed prior to 19878 when the CPSC's ban on lead paint went into effect. If paint is deteriorating, CPSC states that samples should be collected from several locations on the equipment, giving priority to equipment painted or repainted before 1978. Samples should be analyzed by a laboratory. If paint is chipping, peeling or otherwise deteriorating and the lead levels are equal to or exceed 0.5% by weight, measures to control the lead hazard should be implemented.

 LEAD FINDINGS: This year, a question was added to the CFA/PIRG survey to determine whether there was any peeling, chipping or cracking paint on any equipment surface. No samples were collected and no laboratory analysis was performed.

  • Forty-four (44%) percent of all playgrounds had peeling, chipping or cracked paint on at least some portion of the equipment surface. Further analysis is required to determine if this paint contains lead, and, if so, if it is at a hazardous level.


©1999 Public Interest Research Groups