Fall Guy n. (slang) – 1. One who takes ‘the rap’ for others; one who is easy to take advantage of. 2. A scapegoat. [synonyms: chump, fool, gull, mark, patsy, sucker, schlemiel, soft touch] here are we after over a decade of playground safety standards in the U.S.? After almost as many years of playground audits and inspections by playground safety inspectors?
It appears that “public playground safety standards” — generally accepted as being ASTM Safety Performance Specification F1487 and the CPSC Handbook for Public Playground Safety — are either branded as (a) Very Bad: the major obstacle that prevents unfettered, spontaneous and imaginative play by children, or as (b) Very Good: the sole and absolute solution for children’s safety on playgrounds.
There are many outspoken advocates of both positions, often stating their argument passionately and emotionally, and vehemently condemning those who speak in behalf of the other argument.
From an objective perspective, both parties have valid points, but neither is entirely correct.
It should not be a case of “either/or”, but rather how much of both concerns is appropriate.
It’s true that some challenge and excitement have been removed from pre-standard era playgrounds, thereby reducing a quantity (some say “quality’) of pleasure and fun for some children. It can be said with some accuracy that compliance to ASTM F1487 had tended to make several types of play equipment uniformly similar (some say “boring”) regardless of manufacturer. But it is also true that playground equipment manufacturers and playground owners and operators are more aware of several potentially serious hazards and have successfully taken a proactive approach to eliminate these hazards in their designs.
Equipment manufacturers are becoming sensitive to the need to balance standards compliance with play stimulation and value. Today they are introducing equipment which, while compliant, is designed to be more enjoyable for kids to use.
Unfortunately, playground owners and operators, municipal and state agencies, and playground safety inspectors are still in the strict-compliance-is-the-solution mode. Too many certified playground safety inspectors (CPSI’s) evaluate the safety of playgrounds solely on the extent that the equipment, surfacing, and layout are as specified in the playground safety standards. This black or white approach to safety is done too often without any consideration for reality. Yes, sometimes issues must be resolved—such as when equipment is intended for use by both pre-school and school-age children. But few playground safety audits actually include a true risk assessment of the playground after completion of the identification of non-compliant conditions. As noted in earlier discussions of this topic in this column, a fully compliant playground is not necessarily a completely safe playground.
This points out one of the basic arguments against establishment of legislated playground safety standards: making these dimensions, sizes, shapes, and layouts law, reinforces the mistaken premise that standards compliance is the ultimate means to safety.
For example, there are advocates who would make it mandatory that play equipment not exceed a maximum height. This magical accident-eliminating maximum height has been cited as 96 inches, or 84 inches, or even 78 inches. Consider what such height limitations would do to the enjoyment and play value of swings, slides, fireman poles, or some upper body equipment. To set a uniform height limit for all play equipment is like trying to fit one size or style of shoes on all children regardless of age or gender.
This strict compliance-is-the-solution approach also fails to correctly consider play equipment that does not fit the norm used for typical playground equipment as described in the standards. Too many times an innovative new design or unusual piece of equipment is rejected not because it is non-compliant to the standard, but simply because the standard is too limited or is too design-restrictive. Consequently, unusual or different equipment is either incorrectly evaluated based upon wrong segments of the standard or is rejected because the standard simply does not include the item.
Too many CPSI’s think of standards as ‘the final word’ and fail to realize that there are many other designs and distinct pieces of playground equipment that are not included in the current version of the U.S. standards. Children in other countries have been playing on great playground structures for years without incurring significant harm, yet those structures are not addressed by ASTM F1487 and thus are rarely found in the United States. Here are just two examples: (1) a one-seat swing without a overhead horizontal beam, but with its suspension chains connected high up on the two support posts of an A-frame structure; and (2) a swing intended for use standing up with a footrest wide enough for the user’s entire foot suspended just 6 inches above the underlying safety surfacing.
The National Playground Safety Institute (NPSI) has recognized the limitations of identifying non-compliances without follow-up hazard evaluation and risk assessment. Presently, too many CPSI’s are comfortable with only inventorying the findings of their comparisons of the audited playground to the documented standard; they are uncomfortable making a more complete risk assessment. NPSI currently advocates determination of playground hazard priorities based upon ‘fundamental consequences’ criteria.
For example, every CPSI is taught that a Priority One Hazard is a condition very apt to cause a permanent disability, loss of life or loss of a body part. But a better risk assessment model is being developed. The Institute is currently reevaluating the playground safety audit process and is considering adopting a new approach to playground safety. Future credentialing of playground auditors may involve a progression of several training modules, written examinations, applied exercises, and perhaps documentation of actual experience or work under a master mentor.
Undoubtedly this will result in fewer fully certified playground safety auditors, but there will be value and application for those who have acquired preliminary and intermediate training as well. Those who have successfully completed training modules in maintenance and inspections will find many opportunities for auditing as well.
This approach will help demystify risk assessment of playgrounds, allow individuals to develop expertise in their chosen niche of playground safety, and stop making standards compliance the fall guy on playgrounds.