An eight-year-old girl, playing in her housing complex, falls eight feet from the monkey bars, injuring her head. She dies the next day. A five-year-old boy falls from a nine-foot climber, displacing and disfiguring his jaw and lip. He will require repeated surgery until he is 15. A two-year-old and a five-year-old die after being struck by swings.

These are just some of the nightmares that occur everyday at playgrounds throughout the country. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that each year 200,000 American children are injured on playgrounds seriously enough to require emergency-room treatment.

Many of these deaths and injuries could be prevented if playgrounds were properly designed and maintained and if children were properly supervised, according to the CPSC.

Safe and well-maintained playgrounds also help reduce a municipality's exposure to lawsuits and liability.

The Wheaton, Md.-based Association for Childhood Education International recently conducted a nationwide study of litigation stemming from playground injuries and deaths. The study revealed that most cases are settled out of court, usually in favor of plaintiffs.

Authors Joe Frost, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, and Theodora Sweeney, a private consultant, reviewed 177 playground injuries and 13 fatalities that occurred between 1981 and 1995 and resulted in lawsuits.

According to their report, 81 percent of the cases were settled out of court, 9 percent went to trial and 10 percent are in progress (with most of the cases still in progress expected to be settled quickly).

Head injuries most often resulted in litigation, and many resulted in permanent impairment of physical or mental function. Arm and leg injuries were the second most common type. Among the study's other findings were the following:

  • Falls onto hard-ground surfaces (concrete, asphalt or hard-packed earth) were responsible for most injuries (nearly 60 percent);

  • Slides, swings and climbers were most frequently involved in injuries;

  • Public school playgrounds were among the most common sites of injuries leading to lawsuits, followed by public parks, child care centers, fast food restaurants and backyards;

  • 72 percent of all the cases involved children ages two to eight. Five- and six-year-olds were most often injured.

Perhaps the most compelling finding was that 94 percent, or 179 of the 190 cases, involved violations of guidelines published by the CPSC and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).

Currently, there is no federal law mandating playground safety standards, and consequently there is no federal agency charged with enforcing playground safety standards.

Guidelines found in the “Handbook for Public Playground Safety,” published by the CPSC, can help make playgrounds safer. Created in 1981 and twice revised, the guidelines may undergo further revision to make them more compatible with the ASTM standard F 1487-95 (Consumer Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use).

“The playground safety guidelines established by the CPSC and ASTM are the most extensively researched and skillfully developed ones of their kind in the United States and are the most influential safety standards in lawsuits,” according to authors Frost and Sweeney. The authors note that the majority of the lawsuits they reviewed resulted from the violation of one basic CPSC/ASTM guideline.

A recent nationwide investigation of public playgrounds by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and Consumer Federation of America (CFA) echoed their findings.

The PIRG/CFA investigation, conducted in the spring of 1996, found that 85 percent of the playgrounds surveyed lacked adequate protective surfacing, and 39 percent of slides and climbing equipment did not have an adequate fall zone under and around the play equipment.

Still, certain steps can ensure safer playgrounds. As a first step, obtain the safety guidelines produced by the U.S.Consumer Product Safety Commission [(800) 638-2772], as well as those of ASTM [(610) 832-9585].

The National Program for Playground Safety, Cedar Falls, Iowa, has produced numerous brochures and literature under a grant through the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control. For more information, call (800) 554-7529.

For assistance in conducting an independent safety audit of a playground, obtain the ASTM/CPSC Playground Audit Guide by calling (800) 233-8404. Conducting a thorough and complete audit is imperative. It is the first step in identifying problems and setting priorities.

An audit should include an inspection of all playground equipment installed before the CPSC published its initial safety guidelines in 1981, an inspection of all overhead apparatuses and an analysis of “fall zones” under and around equipment where a user might land when falling from or exiting the equipment.

Playground supervision and regular preventive maintenance are also key components in ensuring safer playgrounds. Accurate documentation of inspection and maintenance can be a strong defense against claims of negligence stemming from allegations of unsafe or broken equipment.

Another consideration is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that access be provided to outdoor recreational areas. The U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barrier Compliance Board offers appropriate ADA accessibility guidelines. Call (202) 272-5434.

Lastly, “Parent Checklist: How Safe is Your Local Playground?” is available from the Consumer Federation of America, P.O. Box 12099, Washington, D.C. 20005.
Ron Cohea, Coregis Insurance Co., Chicago