Your Health

Playing it safe

Region and city staff team up to reduce injuries from play structures

Region and city staff team up to reduce injuries from play structures
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Playground safety by the numbers

Playground safety tips

Web extra: How to prevent playground injuries

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2010

There's nothing guaranteed to get your heart racing like watching your adventuresome toddler clamber to the top of the play structure at the park, race across the platform and throw his or her little body head-first down a slide that suddenly has taken on the proportions of a skyscraper.

Play structures are meant to be played on. They offer hours of exercise as your kids make new friends and chase them around the structure, pretending to cross over hot lava under the monkey bars, escape the giant spider on the nets, or fly to the moon on the swings. But play structures also have their hidden dangers and can easily turn a fun excursion into a visit to a hospital Emergency Department.

A study prepared by IMPACT, the Winnipeg Health Region's injury prevention program, sheds light on the problem. Researchers looked at data for a 10-year period between 1998 and 2007. They found that about 2,000 children were taken to the Emergency Department of Children's Hospital with playground-related injuries during that time, including 243 in 2007. While most of the children were treated at the Emergency Department and released, about 10 per cent were injured seriously enough to be admitted to hospital.

The study found that most playground injuries - 64.5 per cent - were caused by a fall. Age largely determines the type of playground injury a child has. Children between the ages of five and nine are more likely to be injured at the playground, with 80 per cent of the injuries being fractures of the wrist, lower arm, or elbow.

Children under five years of age were more likely to injure their head and face, accounting for nearly 60 per cent of playground injuries in this age group.

Dr. Lynne Warda, Medical Director for IMPACT, says there is a reason why kids under five years of age suffer different types of injuries than those who are older. "Little kids are top-heavy, so when they fall they tend to hit their head and face. Older children, on the other hand, tend to use their arms to stop their fall, resulting in broken bones," says Warda.

Equipment most often cited in injuries include monkey bars, slides and swings. But kids also managed to injure themselves while playing on teeter-totters, spring rockers, and hanging from rings.

"Younger kids especially don't have the upper-body strength to swing or hang, so they fall off. Older children tend to fall because there are too many kids on the play structure, they are playing rough and pushing, or they are not using the equipment the way it is intended to be used," says Warda.

Unfortunately, there is one death a year in Canada due to strangulation at a playground.

Warda says there are several situations where this can occur. If a child forgets to remove a bike helmet before playing on the play structure, the helmet may become wedged into a part of the structure and the child is left hanging by the chin strap. Another hazard is when drawstrings from clothing get stuck in a gap, such as at the top of a slide. Children have also been known to suffocate on skipping ropes or strings that were tied to play structures.

"Kids can't rescue themselves from this type of problem," she says. "Clothing manufacturers have not used drawstrings on hoodies and jackets for a number of years because of this danger. Parents should make sure that their child never wears a bike helmet on a play structure, that no jackets or tops have drawstrings, and that no one ever ties anything onto the play equipment."

In 2008, IMPACT teamed up with the City of Winnipeg and other partners to form the Winnipeg Safe Communities' playground falls committee, whose goal is to reduce the number of injuries due to falls. This group works to raise awareness about playground safety, purchase playground inspection equipment and offer playground safety courses.

An important component of a safe playground is that the structure is built on an impact-absorbing surface, such as wood chips, rubber mulch, sand or pea gravel. These surfaces do not guarantee that a child won't be injured in a fall from a play structure, but they do reduce the likelihood of a fracture or a head injury.

Playground surfaces can lose their impact-absorbing quality over time and need to be maintained, and in some cases, replaced.

Last year, the committee purchased a $15,000 device called the Triax 2000, which measures the G-force of a fall off a play structure, swing or teeter-totter. Trained inspectors use this to test the playground surfaces at schools, day cares and community centres. If the Triax 2000 shows that a surface is too hard, the surface can be replenished or maintained to restore its energy-absorbing qualities.

"We are working to raise the playground safety knowledge of people who have an interest in either playground operation or in supervising children at the playground," says Warda. Last year, the educational opportunities included a Certified Playground Inspection course, Triax training and a Safer Playground workshop to train playground supervisors about the CSA standards and maintenance of playground equipment. "Due to popular demand, we are offering two safer playground workshops this year."

Jason Bell, Superintendent of Centralized Park Services for the City of Winnipeg, is a key member of the committee. He says the City is continually working to maintain and upgrade its 500 public playgrounds to make sure they are safe.

The City has seen different types of equipment come and go. Carousels and the metal "rocket" climbing structures were in vogue in the 1950s and '60s, while most wood play structures were built in the 1970s. The '80s brought fibreglass equipment to the fore, while today most of the equipment is termed "post and deck" and made with metal and PVC components.

"We do have 40+-year-old equipment out there, with the metal slides and swing sets, which are very durable," says Bell. "We monitor the safety of our City of Winnipeg playspaces and schedule maintenance as required. Our staff inspect the equipment and the surfacing beneath the equipment. As well, if there is reported vandalism or if someone has reported a hazard to the City, we will follow up to make the repair."

"We encourage people to report City playground hazards by calling 311," Bell adds. "We will need to know the concern, the name of the park and the street address so that we can investigate the problem."

The City usually renovates 15 to 20 playgrounds per year, with complete removal and replacement of play equipment. For example, this year, Kildonan Park will receive a very large and accessible play structure in place of the old wooden one.

What about home play equipment? Warda says that since there are no safety standards in Canada for play structures intended for home use, parents often are not aware of the precautions that need to be taken.

This spring, the committee will focus on educating parents about backyard play structures, including a consumer guide for parents that discusses what to consider when purchasing and installing play equipment for both the toddler and the older child. The point-of-sale information will emphasize the importance of purchasing age-appropriate equipment, maintaining the equipment, providing safe surfaces, and supervising kids at play. Posters and information pamphlets will be available at the end of May at local retailers.

Warda adds, "Spring is finally here. And whether families are visiting their community playground or playing in their own back yard, remember the SAFE guidelines and have a fun and active summer."

Susie Strachan is a Winnipeg writer.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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