Everyone, and here's why!
We’ve all heard the statistics regarding injuries on playgrounds. We know children get and are still getting, hurt and killed out there. There are the obvious things we can do to reduce the likelihood of that occurring, such as buying equipment that is certified to be safely manufactured and installed, having the correct surfacing with impact absorption ratings for the fall heights and so on. But after performing playground safety audits on exactly 2,503 sites across the USA, I have some shocking news…. not one has ever passed for having the correct signage or labels being present and accounted for. Amazing? Sure. Preposterous? Well, that depends on who you ask.
The naysayers of signs and labels have said: “Forget the signs, I know how to watch my kids.” “Why bother with signs or labels? We just have to replace them.” “No one reads them.” “It’s okay if my 8-year-old watches my 2-year-old on the playground while I’m (fill in the blank),” etc. Well, read on for reasons why they are not only a good idea but are the law in states that have adopted the ASTM Standards and/or the CPSC Guidelines.
There ARE children and parents who WILL read them and comply with them. There are also lawyers who will be looking for them as well.
Why are signs and labels so important? Warnings and information can be on either a sign (installed either on the equipment itself or away from the equipment) or on a label (usually installed on the equipment, but labels can also be installed away from it as well). Warnings are typically those that say “Warning” or “Danger” or “Caution,” while informational signs or labels convey certain information such as the age range of users, or supervision being recommended.
Signs or labels serve as a constant reminder of what to do or not do to reduce the risk of serious injuries (you will never “eliminate” the risk as there are too many factors involved). It is a simple matter of how you must convey the message to the users and supervisors as to what the rules are, what the risks are, or even what the hazards are.
Since you will not be there on site 24/7 to verbally instruct every user and parent as to who can use what, when and how, signs and labels are your best bet. Remember, owner/operators have a duty to warn people about existing or potential problems and hazards. Almost every case I’ve had as an expert witness (274 to date) has had a “failure to warn” claim in the complaint.
One positive aspect of signs and labels is that they provide a great defense. I’ve had many cases where attorneys have asked me if they have a case against an owner/operator for failure to warn. Although some have, I’ve informed others that they do not since the proper signs or labels that would apply to the case were there, resulting in no lawsuit filed. Signs are much less expensive than a lawsuit.
It is the lack of warnings for known hazardous situations (not always “equipment,” but “situations”) and other important information that provide substance for lawsuits. If an owner/operator knows of a hazard and does not warn the users, he is negligent.
NOTE: DO NOT confuse “negligence” with “gross negligence”! You might be immune from being “negligent,” but you probably are NOT immune from “gross negligence”.
Government employees can and have been individually sued. Knowing you should have signs or labels installed and maintained, but did not, maybe “negligence” if the signs were vandalized over the weekend. But it may constitute “gross negligence” if they were ruined a year ago and you just never got around to replacing them, causing someone to file a lawsuit claiming that was the cause of their injuries. So, signs/labels have become less of a cosmetic issue and more of a necessity to avoid litigation.
I’ve been to many playgrounds where there were no adults in sight, so I send those kids home to tell their parents they need to be out there with their kids. You guessed it. Some of those kids have produced some irate parents, but some were understanding. Had the sign or label been on the playground those parents “may” have been there when I arrived.
Signs or labels do NOT take the place of supervision. They simply state the recommendation for it. Trust me, lots of parents and caregivers need that reminder.
They don’t seem to understand. If they are not present, how will they know that their child is in danger, been kidnapped, or became injured (or died)?
Another fact that you don’t hear much about are the injuries that happen to adults on the playground. If only there were labels stating the age range of users, “some” of the lawsuits never would have been filed. I’m not saying all adults will stay off of playground equipment by simply installing a sign or label. I’m saying that adults should be on the playground in order to supervise the children. But if they are made aware that the equipment is intended for use by children of a certain age, then perhaps they may not attempt to go down that slide and break their ankle, tailbone, back, become paralyzed, etc. (all true cases).
Basically, signs and labels help, not guarantee, the users and adults to comply with the information stated on them. What is obvious to most people (supervision recommended, the playground is for children only, etc.) is not obvious to everyone. It is a known fact that signs and labels will get some (not all) parents, supervisors, and yes, even kids, to comply. This will keep the children (and some of those adults) from becoming hurt or killed.
You might be asking yourself, “Gee, where can I find more information and any references to having to have signs or labels on my playground?” There are a plethora of sources.
SURFACING WARNING LABEL; see ASTM Standard #F1487-05, section #14, which requires it to be attached to ALL playground equipment (that require surfacing, that is). Don’t forget, you don’t need it for playhouses, freestanding activity panels, sandboxes, or other equipment where the intent is for the user’s feet to keep in touch with the ground.
DRAWSTRING WARNING LABEL; see CPSC Guidelines (#325), section 9.2 (page 11). The purpose of this label is to warn, inform, and educate purchasers and those supervising children about the danger of a user being entangled on equipment by drawstrings on their clothing, to prevent strangulation. Although CPSC does not (yet) state this as a “requirement” to have on your playground, the intent is made, thus your duty to provide it is born.
“ADULT SUPERVISION IS RECOMMENDED” SIGN OR LABEL: Tell children, parents, and lawyers the intent that the playground is not a place for unsupervised play. CPSC recommends supervision throughout the entire document. See sections 1.3, 6.2, 6.4, 11.6, 12.4.8. The ASTM Standard #F1487-05 (Introduction and section 15 of the 2005 revision) has this as a required label on the playground.
AGE GROUP SIGNS OR LABELS help with age separation, which is critical to safety and proper inspections! See CPSC section 6.3, “Signs posted in the playground area can be used to give some guidance to adults as to the age appropriateness of the equipment.” Also, see CPSC section 6.4 which states, “Supervisors should look for posted signs indicating the appropriate age of the users…” Also, tot seats are addressed in section 12.6.3 as being for kids under 4 years of age. See ASTM Standard #F1487-05, section 15 as well, for requirements on having age group signs or labels.
SURFACING LEVEL MARKER LABELS; allows maintenance people, supervisors, and users to quickly and easily check the support posts for the proper amount of loose-fill surfacing depths. See CPSC section 4.5 (last paragraph).
Basically, signs and labels help keep children (and sometimes adults) from becoming hurt or killed on the playground.
Now, here’s an incentive to go out and install or replace signs and labels: signs and labels have been known to reduce insurance premiums! Now you’re thinking, “At least there’s some benefit to this madness!” So, by now you realize that there are monetary, legal, and moral benefits of having signage. At least I hope that’s the case. Congratulations, but you’re not off the hook yet. Read on.
What kinds of signs or labels do you normally find on a playground?
SUPERVISION signs or labels are in the “informational” category. Its intent is NOT to “replace” actual supervision!
The age range of users is also in the “informational” category.
Drawstring warning (no drawstrings allowed on garments on a playground)
Surfacing warning (see illustration below)
Surfacing level markers are in the “informational” category.
Specific or special rules of the playground (no dogs, no alcohol/drugs, hours of operation, numbers to call, etc.).
BAD signs, and even some funny ones! One park had a sign that said “WARNING - USE OF THIS PLAYGROUND BY CHILDREN OR OTHER PERSONS IS PROHIBITED” (apparently only for use by animals and aliens!).
More often, you find signs that say “Play safely” (which means what?).
You also find signs located at the entrance to the playground. They should contain, among other things, the following;
• Ages of the intended users
• “Adult supervision is recommended”
• Hours of operation
• How to report any damage or vandalism
• Other rules that may apply to the particular site (no dogs, drugs, drinking, etc.)
Can you make labels yourself? Many folks do. Most find that the new equipment they purchase already comes with new labels for free! The signs are typically panels that have to be purchased as a component, such as a barrier on a platform, or mounted to its own posts at an entrance. Labels might be torn off later, so be sure to ask for a supply of them to replace as needed.
But if you intend to make signs or labels yourself, you need to know a few things first.
There is yet another organization called the American National Standards Institute (“ANSI”). They have been the body that has promulgated the national standards on warning signs and labels in the U.S.A. In the ANSI standards, they outline how signs and labels must be positioned properly, be legible, have a certain letter size, shape, graphics (if required), coloring, are worded properly (“Warning” does not go on an “information” label!), etc. If you don’t get the sign or label details correct, you could be just as liable as if they weren’t there at all. Note the differences between the following label examples:
The one on the left complies with ANSI Standards, while the sample on the right does not for the following reasons:
It does not have the proper orange coloring (even a specific shade of orange is required!) for a warning label.
The font is not a universally acceptable style that can be read easily.
It is without the “safety alert symbol” (explanation point within the triangle) and “signal word panel” (separate designated colored area with “Warning” in it).
Letter sizes are too small, in lower case, and are not in bold.
It has been tested and proven that the label on the left will be more readily recognizable, understood, and adhered to than the one on the right.
The ANSI Standards that apply to playgrounds are #Z535.1-1998 (“Safety Color Code”), #Z535.3-1998 (“Criteria for Safety Symbols”), #Z535.4-1998 (“Product Safety Signs and Labels”). The ANSI Standard Z535.4-1998 states “A product safety sign or label should alert persons to a specific hazard, the degree or level of hazard seriousness, the probable consequence of involvement with the hazard, and how the hazard can be avoided.”
I can only recommend that if you prefer to make your own signs or labels, purchase a copy of the ANSI Standards. But, just like any standard or guideline, you had best have the correct interpretation, or you may be in a pickle later on!
The signage is created. Now what? Proper placement is so critical that lawsuits have been awarded (and lost) based on whether or not a sign or label was in the correct spot. I’ve seen numerous structures with the surfacing warning label (see above) installed in place of surfacing level markers (at or below the surfacing level). It’s not too effective if they cannot be seen!
People have to be able to see the signs or labels from whatever direction they might approach the playground equipment. Otherwise, they will be missed and pointless. Give strong consideration to where the signs or labels will be seen. If you have an open park and you can approach the playground from numerous angles, then you will have to use the 3-point placement approach (on everything except the surfacing level markers). This is where you visualize a triangular view of the area so that no matter where you approach it from you will see a sign/label.
Use the following as a guide:
• Drawstring Warning and Adult Supervision labels can either go on every piece of equipment -or- at the known entrance(s) to the playground -or- the 3-point placement method.
• Surfacing Warning labels must be placed onto each and every piece of playground equipment (that require surfacing, that is).
• Age Group signs or labels can either go on every piece of equipment -or- at the known entrance(s) to the playground -or- the 3-point placement method.
*CAVEAT: be careful not to install conflicting age range signs or labels. This is more common than you might imagine. One case I had involved a park that had a sign at the one entrance that stated the age range of users for the playground was for 5-12-year-olds.
Although the composite structure had components that fell within that age range of users, there was also a swingset with infant “bucket” seats! Oh wait, it gets better. On that tot swing, the posts said it was for 2-12-year-olds! Ready for more? The infant bucket seat stated that it was for children under 3 years of age! So, the dilemma is that the sign at the entrance says 5-12, the label on the swing frame says 2-12, and the seat says it’s for under three (which includes infants, under 2!). Pretty clear isn’t it? Not. No wonder the parents were scratching their heads. On top of it all, CPSC says that tot seats are for children under 4 years of age, but ASTM does not specifically address tot seats at all.
No wonder it makes some CPSI’s as confused as those parents. The solution? Go with the most stringent between ASTM & CPSC (on everything), and label that tot seat for kids under 4 years of age, with adult assistance.
There are too many warnings, you say? Perhaps that is true. A long list of warnings can be ineffective. That’s why it’s important to know exactly what to say, how to say it, and not get too detailed with it. And you don’t have to identify each concern you might have either. Concentrate on the known hazards, the requirements, the standards and the laws, and all will be as safe as it can be in the playground universe! You’ll be glad you did!
Editor’s note: Scott Burton is president of Safety Play, Inc., located in both Florida and California. For more answers, you can reach Scott at [email protected] or www.mindspring.com/~safetyplay or call toll free at 888-878-0244.