Each year, thousands of students across the country are critically injured on school playgrounds. While some of these injuries occur as the result of unavoidable accidents, school districts can take certain steps to reduce the risk of injury to their students. These steps could also serve to protect the school district from liability in the event that an injury does occur and the district is subsequently sued.
There are four areas of playground safety where districts should focus their attention: (1) supervision, (2) appropriate playground equipment, (3) playground maintenance, and (4) fall surfaces. In the area of supervision, school districts should establish an appropriate adult to student ratio on the playground, preferably equivalent to the ratio present in classrooms, since students are even more active, and thus more likely to be injured, while on the playground as they are in a classroom environment. It is a good idea for the supervision ratio to be established and publicized in a staff handbook. Of course, districts should ensure that the established supervision ratio is realistic and always followed. The adults assigned to playground supervision duty need not be teachers, so long as they have received appropriate training on effective supervision. This training should include proper staff coverage of the playground, proper use of equipment and how to handle a fall or other accident which might occur on the playground. Teachers and other adults who are assigned playground duty should be specifically advised that they should space themselves on the playground so as to have a good view of the entire area. If there are areas of the playground which are of particular concern based on the probability of injury, the adults supervising the playground should also ensure that these potentially hazardous areas are adequately supervised. One such potentially hazardous area is the swingset area. Without proper supervision, children running in front of or behind a child who is swinging can easily be struck.
The second area, appropriate playground equipment, is of particular concern to South Carolina school districts, since some districts may have outdated and potentially dangerous equipment located on their playgrounds. The South Carolina Tort Claims Act provides that a school district will not be liable for any student injury occurring as the result of defective or otherwise unsafe playground equipment unless the district has "actual notice" of the condition and fails to correct it. Nevertheless, attorneys representing students injured on a piece of playground equipment could make the argument that a district has an affirmative duty to determine whether its playground equipment is unsafe, and based upon that determination, take appropriate corrective action. Of course, if a student has already been injured on a particular piece of playground equipment, that injury may serve as actual notice that the piece of equipment is somehow defective or dangerous. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has issued several publications setting forth guidelines for playground safety, which may provide useful information for school districts to use in reviewing the condition of their playground equipment. While these guidelines are voluntary rather than mandatory in South Carolina, if a school district is sued as the result of an injury occurring on a piece of playground equipment, the school district could point to its compliance with the CPSC guidelines to show that it had no actual notice that its playground equipment was dangerous or defective.
The third area of playground safety, maintenance, is also very important. Districts should have a playground checklist in place for use by school officials in reviewing and taking any necessary action to correct potentially unsafe conditions on their playgrounds, including the removal of any debris, such as stumps or tree limbs, which could cause an injury. Playground equipment should also be inspected to make sure it is in good working order, and that there are no rusty or loose parts or protruding bolts. These inspections should be done on a regular basis, and the inspection records maintained by the district.
Finally, since the majority of serious playground injuries occur as the result of falls, school districts should assure that they have appropriate surfaces under and around their playground equipment. Playground safety experts generally recommend sand, wood chips, rubber or pea gravel as the best fall-absorbing materials. A good guideline for the depth of the surface material is approximately 12 inches, where the playground equipment located on the surface is eight feet or less in height.
In summary, here are several tips which school officials should keep in mind to help ensure playground safety.
- Have adequate fall-absorbing material located under all equipment.
- Make sure that pieces of equipment are located an adequate distance from each other--at least nine feet apart is a good guide.
- Check for potentially dangerous hardware--including open "S" hooks and sharp edges.
- Make sure that elevated surfaces, including high platforms and ramps, have guardrails to prevent falls.
- Check for potential "entrapments" such as openings in guardrails or between ladder rungs. Such openings should measure less than 3.5 inches or more than 9 inches.
- Look for potential tripping hazards, including rocks and concrete footings.
Reviewing playgrounds with these four areas in mind should assist districts in assuring that their playgrounds provide the safest possible environment for students. While not all accidents can be avoided, the risk of a serious or even fatal accident, as well as the resulting potential liability, can be significantly reduced.