Playground Risk: Not All Fun and Games

What if I told you there is a product that — for several decades — has caused about 14 deaths and injured about 200,000 children 14 and younger every year, and resulted in estimated costs of well over $1 billion?

What if I added that the steps to mitigate these deaths and injuries were widely known and fairly straightforward, but were rarely implemented?

The good news is that there is no such product. The bad news is that the numbers are very real, and they are caused by a part of communities across the United States that is generally seen as a safe environment that is an essential part of growing up: Playgrounds.

There are an estimated 80,000 playgrounds in the United States run by schools or municipalities where kids from 6 months old to 12 years old play. These are rightly celebrated, and their funding and creation is often greeted with much attention from media, politicians and the communities they serve.

However, playground risk is overlooked, even though most injuries to children in childcare and children ages 5 to 14 in schools take place on playgrounds. You can see from the statistics referenced previously that little progress has been made despite the glaring evidence that risks exist.

Why this situation has lingered is difficult to say. It may be that, unlike a product connected to a clearly identifiable company, playgrounds are disconnected, far-flung, and owned and operated by a wide variety of organizations, from schools to municipalities to community groups. This may make it a challenge to effect the widespread and consistent change needed.

Reducing playground injuries

Back to the good news: We know what causes playground injuries and we know how to reduce them. This is where the eye rolling usually starts about insurance. Just last week while inspecting a playground, someone said to me “Oh, you’re here to take all the fun out of the playground.” While I understand the sentiment, it is far from the reality.

The reason playgrounds are so beloved and have become so ingrained in our culture is that they provide kids with an environment in which to challenge themselves physically, mentally and socially. The playground is where children learn to — quite literally — overcome obstacles and take (measured) risks. But this does not mean that the environment must be a hazardous one.

Laws vary state by state; however, there are well-established guidelines and standards for effective risk management through each of stage of a playground’s “life cycle”:

  1. Build or modify.
  2. Install, repair or change.
  3. Ongoing operations.

The American With Disabilities Act, the American National Standards Institute, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have all done good work in developing widely accepted standards that owners of playgrounds should adhere to in order to protect children from harm, and themselves from liability.

While I won’t go through them here, it may be surprising how simple it is to reduce or eliminate playground hazards. Just installing proper signage can encourage proper supervision, and having the right surface (like mulch, sand, or pea gravel) can prevent some of the 20% of playground deaths caused by falls to the playground surface.

Inspection programs needed

But the physical changes are easy. Real change takes real commitment. Playgrounds need to be inspected monthly and audited once a year, and inventories need to be updated when changes are made. Injuries need to be reported, and employees need to be trained on what constitutes a hazardous condition.

It’s the job of insurance and risk professionals to facilitate and encourage this commitment by ensuring there is a formalized playground safety program in place. This must include a robust inspection protocol that will enable staff to find hazards before the children do, as well as a process to take equipment out of service while repairs are made.

The results of such an effort can be dramatic. Playground-related injuries at North Carolina childcare centers dropped 22% after a law was passed requiring new playground equipment and surfacing to conform to U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines.

Taking a hard line on safety from the outset will preserve the enjoyment that playgrounds provide by ensuring the environment is both challenging and safe for our most precious citizens. If some make glib comments about “taking the fun out of playgrounds,” it’s a small price to pay.

Bob Marinelli, ARM, CPSI, RSSP is risk control manager for San Antonio, Texas-based Trident Public Risk Solutions, working with municipalities and schools throughout the United States.

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