Meeting Playground Safety Standards

In 1994, a fourth grader at Irmo Elementary School was injured after a slip and fall from a piece of playground equipment — equipment that had been modified in accordance with the safety recommendations of a playground equipment sales representative who did not have training or licensing as an engineer.

The case eventually resulted in a SC Supreme Court ruling, Ellege v. Richland/Lexington School District Five, which ruled that, even though there are no federally mandated standards for playground safety, "relevant evidence of industry standards" is admissible as evidence in negligence cases.

One such commonly accepted document of standards is the Public Playground Safety Handbook of the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.

That handbook digs into the considerations of planning, building, inspecting and maintaining a playground. For example, as part of the site selection process, alongside concerns about excessive sun exposure as well as drainage, it recommends taking note of nearby hazards which children might run into or toward — "roads with traffic, lakes, ponds, streams, drop-offs/cliffs, etc." It also calls for a separation of conflicting activities, such as making sure that a slide exits into an uncongested area.

The publication also provides a breakdown of equipment appropriate for each age group and calls for the separation of each into its own area. For example, toddler-appropriate equipment includes swings with full bucket seats while the oldest group, children ages 5 to 12, could make use of arch climbers, chain or cable walks or vertical sliding poles. The handbook also calls for playground planners to make sure that the areas intended for different age groups are visible from one another so that caregivers can keep an eye on their children of different ages at the same time.

Members of the South Carolina Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund have access to the Parks and Recreation Liability Toolkit, which covers playground safety, among other liability topics such as parks personnel, supervision, recreation programs and facilities rules. Its playground safety checklist breaks down some key measurement thresholds for playgrounds, including

  • protective surfacing around playground equipment needs to extend at least 6 feet in all directions from the play equipment, and for swings, the surfacing should extend at least twice the height of the extending bar forward and back;
  • all play structures taller than 30 inches should be spaced at least 9 feet apart; and
  • spaces that can trap children, "such as openings in guardrails or between ladder rungs," should either be smaller than 3.5 inches or else wider than 9 inches.

Another publication accepted as a document of industry standards is the Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use of the American Society for Testing and Materials. It is available for purchase through either as a PDF or printed book.