Report: Consumer Protection

Playing It Safe 2000

A Fifth Nationwide Safety Survey Of Public Playgrounds
Released by: U.S. PIRG

The fifth nationwide investigation of public playgrounds by the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) and Consumer Federation of America (CFA) found that a majority of American playgrounds pose hidden threats to our nation’s youngsters.

Too many children are getting hurt and killed on our playgrounds. Approximately 170,100 children are injured seriously enough on public playground equipment to require emergency room treatment each year. Tragically, an average of 17 children die each year playing on playgrounds. Many of these deaths and injuries could be prevented if playgrounds—from equipment to surfacing to layout —were designed with safety in mind.

In June 1998, CFA released the third edition of its "Report and Model Law on Public Play Equipment and Areas," as a blueprint for designing, building and maintaining public playgrounds. The CFA report details the hazards on playgrounds that lead to injuries and presents safety and design criteria that can reduce deaths and injuries. Hazards posed by inadequate surfacing, equipment deficiencies, and other problems have been investigated and documented in reports released by PIRG and CFA in1992 (11 states), 1994 (22 states), 1996 (25 states), and 1998 (24 states).

From March-May 2000, the PIRGs and other CFA member organizations investigated 1,024 playgrounds in 27 states (Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin) and Washington, D.C., to determine the current safety conditions of our public playgrounds.

The investigation focused on the hazards that cause the most serious playground injuries, and found the following:

  • In 2000, 80% of the 1,024 playgrounds surveyed lacked adequate protective surfacing. This is a decrease from the 87% that lacked protective surfacing in 1998. We are particularly encouraged by the decrease in the number of playgrounds with hard surfaces, the least forgiving with respect to injury. Protective surfacing is the most critical safety factor on playgrounds because approximately 75% of all injuries are caused by falls.
  • In 2000, 31% of slides and climbing equipment surveyed did not have an adequate fall zone under and around the play equipment. Other equipment and obstacles in the fall zone pose hazards where a child might fall.
  • In 2000, 48% of playgrounds had climbers and 36% had slides where the height of the play equipment is greater than 6 feet high, which is higher than necessary for play value, and only serves to increase the risk of injury.
  • In 2000, 13% of playgrounds with swings had swing seats that are made of wood, metal or other rigid material, which increases the severity of injury if impact occurs.
  • In 2000, 27% of playgrounds with swings had some swings that were either too close together or too close to swing supports, which increases the risk that a child could be hit by a moving swing.
  • In 2000, in 34% of playgrounds, improperly sized openings in the play equipment posed a head entrapment hazard that may lead to strangulation.
  • In 2000, in 38% of playgrounds, small gaps, open S-hooks and other protrusions posed clothing entanglement hazards, in particular drawstrings on clothing. This figure represents a significant decline from 1996, when 47% of playgrounds had clothing entanglement hazards.
  • In 2000, 38% of playgrounds had unacceptable dangerous equipment, such as chain or cable walks, animal swings, individual climbing ropes or exercise rings.
  • In 2000, 47% of all playgrounds had peeling, chipped or cracking paint on equipment surfaces.  

Overall, this year’s survey shows improvements, in particular, a continued decline in the number of playgrounds with hard surfaces under and around all play equipment. In 1992, fully 31% of playgrounds identified had cement, packed dirt or asphalt or other hard surfaces; the percentage declined to 13% in 1994, 9% in 1996, 8% in 1998, and to 5% this year. As in previous surveys, however, many playgrounds have mixed surfacing, with loose-fill, absorbent materials like hardwood chips under some equipment, and unsafe hard surfaces like soil and grass under other equipment.

Surveyors continue to note the gradual replacement of old, unsafe playgrounds with new, modern playgrounds. In Washington, DC, for example, the National Park Service has replaced several of its playgrounds, and is on schedule to upgrade the others. Several parents at older playgrounds asked surveyors if they were there to replace the old playground equipment with the new equipment they had heard was scheduled to be installed.

Yet changes move slowly and, with budget constraints, many local governments may not prioritize playground safety unless parents and advocates make it an issue. Local authorities should make public playgrounds safer. One estimate showed that in 1995, the health care costs caused by playground injuries were $1.2 billion for children younger than 15 years old.

To improve playground safety, PIRG and CFA offer the following recommendations:

  • States and local governments should adopt CFA’s "Model Law on Public Play Equipment and Areas."
  • Parents, school administrators, child care providers and parks personnel should evaluate their local playgrounds and work to make each playground safer.

As a first step in evaluating the safety of a playground, parents and others can use CFA’s "Parent Checklist: How Safe Is Your Local Playground?" It is found in Appendix C of this report. If any hazards are found, contact the owner or operator of the playground and demand corrective action.

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