Playgrounds and parks are a favourite destination for children of all ages. As the temperature continues to rise, many communities will start to see an increase of families visiting playgrounds and outdoor areas. Your municipal playground plays an essential role in building community and keeping children active. However, it is important that owners identify the potential risks in their playgrounds and take proper steps to ensure the safety of their structures and its users.
We have received many questions from municipalities in regards to the liability risks on municipally owned playgrounds. A large concern stems from injuries and the potential to be found negligent as the owner of the playground. While playground equipment is often designed to meet strict safety standards, playground related injuries continue to be one of the most common types of injury amongst children. You may never be able to prevent all accidents, but there are steps you can take to ensure that your municipality is adhering the Occupier’s Liability Act and therefore reducing your liability risk.
The Occupier’s Liability Act imposes a duty on all occupiers (owners, or those responsible) to take reasonable care to ensure that persons entering or using the premises are safe. The courts have gradually raised the “Standard of Care” required where the safety of children is involved. Municipalities own and operate the public playgrounds and therefore are the occupiers.
The key to keeping your playground equipment safe is knowing what is expected and what to look for. Municipal employees try hard to keep equipment in good condition, but often do not have the knowledge to recognize potential problems and what is needed to correct them. The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) has developed a standard titled “CAN/CSA-Z614-14, Children’s Playspaces and Equipment” which is the standard of care that needs to be followed for the safe installation, inspections and repair of public playgrounds. This standard applies to new structures and to sections of structures that are being repaired or retrofitted. The intention of the standard is to promote the safe installation of new structures and the inspection and repair of older structures to remove hazards and reduce injuries.
A condensed version of the “CAN/CSA-Z614-14, Children’s Playspaces and Equipment” titled Public Playground Safety is available on the AMM Insurance Program website under Risk Management.
Three elements key to preventing playground accidents and avoiding negligence (and therefore avoiding liability):
- Regular Inspections –
- Weekly (if not daily) visual checks for obvious broken/loose equipment, hazardous debris, adequate surface material etc.
- Monthly inspection of all equipment with actions well documented and;
- Annual comprehensive inspection of the entire play area
- Regular Maintenance – Prompt repair of all items that could result in an accident or injury and removal of failing equipment from use until repaired.
- Documentation – Keeping records of all inspections and repair work is vital to proving reasonable care and is the best defense against claims of negligence.
A key component to check on a regular basis is the protective surfacing. This is the surface under and around the playground equipment, which can be a major factor in determining the injury causing potential of a fall. A fall onto shock absorbing surface is less likely to cause injury than a fall onto a hard surface. It must however be recognized that not all injuries due to falls can be prevented, no matter what the playground surfacing material used.
One of the most common approved surface material is medium pea gravel (pea gravel – ¼” diameter). Course sand can also be used as long as it does not have high clay content, which can cause it to pack down. Other surfacing material can include wood chips, mulch and shredded rubber. Remember that every surfacing material will have its advantages and disadvantages. The depth or thickness of the surface material required is dependent on the height of the highest piece of equipment on the playground. The higher the equipment is from the ground the deeper the surfacing material should be. In addition the surfacing material should cover at least 1.8 M (6 feet) in all directions from the play equipment.
Some general information to keep in mind when planning a new playground or inspecting your current playground include:
- CSA recommends at least 1.8 m (6 feet) of space around most pieces of equipment – extra space required around swings and at the bottom of slides
- Make sure a child’s head cannot get trapped in the spaces of the equipment itself – all spaces should be smaller than 9 cm (3.5 inches) and lager than 23 cm (9 inches)
- Platform structures should have ramps and guardrails to prevent falls
- Watch for sharp points or edges that could catch on clothing
- Weather can have an effect on play equipment – metal slides in direct sun
- Do not attach skipping ropes, pet leashes or clotheslines to play equipment; these items could be a tripping or choking hazard
- The CSA playground standard requires public playgrounds to have a sign posted providing the contact information for the owner of the playground
Natural playgrounds are being favored by many communities/groups as they are usually less expensive and offer other types of play activities than manufactured play structures. These natural playgrounds must still comply with the safety requirements of the CAN/CSA-Z614-14. Just like traditional playgrounds it is important that adequate protective surfacing is provided around any raised elements. Caution should be used when spacing elements so as to prevent injury should a child fall off a raised element.
The following is a top 10 safety checklist for playgrounds:
- Ensure surfaces around playground equipment have at least 10-12 inches of pea gravel, sand, wood chips or mulch.
- Ensure that protective surfacing extends at least 6 feet in all directions from play equipment. For swings it must extend, in front and back, twice the height of the suspending bar.
- Make sure play structures more than 30 inches high are spaced at least 9 feet apart.
- Check for dangerous hardware, like open “S” hooks or protruding bolt ends.
- Check for sharp points or edges on equipment.
- Make sure spaces that could trap children, such as openings in guardrails or between ladder rungs, measure less than 3.5 inches or more than 9 inches.
- Look for tripping hazards, like exposed concrete footings, tree stumps and rocks.
- Make sure elevated surfaces, like platforms and ramps, have guardrails or protective barriers to prevent falls.
- Check playgrounds regularly to see that equipment and surfacing are in good condition.
- Whenever possible, adult supervision is highly recommended.
By performing regular inspections and ensuring that playground areas/equipment are maintained to a high standard you can help to create a safe environment for children to play while reducing your liability risks. For more information on playground safety or how you can reduce your liability risk, contact one of our risk management professionals at 1-800-665-8990.
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