If you are the director of a school or have a playground for your busy, church or organization, there is one thing to remember. Children don’t lose in court. It’s a constant in the legal world and it’s unlikely to change in the near future. The reality is that schools, day care centers or any entity that has a playground is suseptible to a lawsuit if a child gets hurt on the playground. Since kids love to play and be outside, it is likely that children will sustain some injuries. Just think back to when you were a child. In fact, each year, 205,000 playground injuries nation-wide result in trips to the emergency room. Therefore, it is essential that you keep your playground up to date and as safe as possible. If you are in Washington DC, Northern Virginia or Maryland, contact us at 877-840-0707 to get a quote for a playground inspection.
1. Get a playground inspection by a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI).
CPSIs are trained by the National Parks and Recreation Association and must pass an exam about playground guidelines and standards issued by the CPSC and the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM). An inspection by a CPSI will teach you things that you never knew about your playground, and prevent problems before they occur. Consider requesting an exhaustive playground audit, usually used by schools seeking certification from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). It is best to have your playground inspected at least once a year. CPSI work is completely confidential, and the information is not shared with any government agencies or other businesses.
2. Read the official playground safety guidelines to avoid a playground lawsuit
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) Handbook for Public Playground Safety is a short and easy-to-read publication . “Public playground” includes private commercial playgrounds in schools and daycares. In fact, fifteen states have implemented the CPSC guidelines as law in whole or in part, so if your playground is located there, hop to it! In other states, you don’t have to follow these guidelines, but doing so will help to show that you have operated your play area using “reasonable care,” a common standard in negligence lawsuits.
3. Be sure to put down adequate protective surfacing
The #1 cause of injuries on public playgrounds is falling from play equipment. So if you don’t have proper surfacing under the equipment, you could find yourself in hot water. Woodchips, wood carpet, rubber mulch, rubber tiles … whatever surface you use, make sure your playground is appropriately covered. Grass and dirt don’t count. Woodchips and wood carpet generally require 9” of depth; artificial surfacing may require less. How much do you need? Check the CPSC guidelines.
4. Make your playground compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Activist organizations are filing lawsuits to force school districts to comply with ADA policies. However, there are many ways to avoid such lawsuits. For starters, it is best to create gaps in any playground borders that prevent wheelchair access to the playground and also add a transfer platform to large play structures if possible. In addition, switch your playground surfacing from woodchips to engineered wood fiber (a.k.a. wood carpet or wood rug). It’s ground more finely than woodchips, so it’s wheelchair-accessible and ADA compliant. Engineered Wood Fiber has become a popular choice for many playgrounds throughout the United States during the past few years.
5. Make sure you document everything
For best practice, create a file of playground-related materials, including equipment plans, warranties, and receipts; records of purchases (wood chips, etc.); a playground inspection report by a CPSI (see #2 above); and a comprehensive playground plan, including a statement of purpose (the National Playground Safety Institute will even help you with the plan). If your playground changes in any way, make sure that you document the changes. Designate, in writing, a member of your staff as the playground coordinator. Keep all of this information in a single file that’s easy to find.
6. Only put quality equipment on your playground
When it comes to playground equipment, “You get what you pay for”, so don’t cut coners at the expense of quality. Besides lawsuits, the health of children should every school administer’s number one concern. Your school, organization or business might be on a tight budget, but it is better in the long run to spend the extra money from the start. Placing low-quality equipment on your playground is not good for the well-being of children. The manufacturer you purchase from should be a member of the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA). Remember, don’t use residential equipment on your commercial playground, even if it’s made by a company that also produces commercial products (i.e., Little Tikes).
7.Avoid wooden playground equipment
The lumber that is used in playground equipment and home decks and porches is pressure-treated with chemicals to prevent aging. Every few years, the CPSC decides that one of these chemicals poses a cancer risk, and the industry switches to a substitute. First, it was chromated copper arsenate (CCA), then it was ACQ (alkaline copper quaternary). Five years from now, it’ll probably be another chemical. Wooden equipment also has maintenance issues: sanding down some types of pressure-treated wood poses a health risk. Avoid this whole song and dance – and possible legal action from concerned parents – by buying plastic or metal playground equipment.
8. Supervise the kids when they are on the playground
Accidents are less likely to happen and lawyers are less likely to beat you in court if you can show that the kids on your playground are propery supervised. Create a written schedule of which teachers or staff will be on the playground and keep copies in a file. Make sure your teachers and staff are doing their jobs and looking out for the well-being of the children. Some schools have removed the benches from their playgrounds because some teachers may sit down and socialize instead of watching the kids.
9. Post a sign at the playground entrance and label the playground equipment
The CPSC recommends that your playground has a sign and equipment is labeled. There should also be a sign stating the hours of playground operation, the ages permitted, and a warning that “Adult supervision is recommended.” The CPSC also suggest having elaborate language about the possibility of danger if children wear hoodies and coats with drawstrings. In the eyes of the law, failure to provide information may be viewed as withholding information. Labels are the cheaper option; they’re available online. Check your local sign shop for cheap custom-made signs. If you want to go the extra step, put up a sign and get labels.
10. Secure the premises after-hours to avoid a playground lawsuit
When you think about playground safety, you probably just think of the kids who attend your school or daycare. But as a property owner, you can be held responsible for injuries to anyone who enters your property after-hours. It doesn’t matter whether or not they are supposed to be on your playground. Make sure to lock the playground gates outside business hours. Put up signage stating that the playground is only for daytime use. If you have the resources, install a higher fence around the play area. The more effort that outsiders must make to get into your playground, the less likely you’ll be held liable for any injuries they suffer while they’re there.
For more information on playgrounds and playground safety, the following organizations offer useful advice and guidelines:
• U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
• International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA)
• National Recreation and Park Assn.
• American Society for Testing and Materials
• National Program for Playground Safety
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — factsheet on playground injuries
• National Safety Council
• Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC)