WRAL Investigates

'There are risks': NC playground inspections vary by school, town

Posted May 12, 2014
Updated May 13, 2014

— The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates as many as 200,000 children go to U.S. emergency rooms every year due to playground injuries, mostly due to falls – 44 percent – and equipment that breaks or tips over – 23 percent.

While most playgrounds in North Carolina are built and designed to code – created by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and American Society for Testing and Materials – WRAL Investigates found that there’s no statewide standard or enforcement for inspecting school playgrounds.

The inspection process for school and park playgrounds varies widely depending on the city and the school district. Day care center playgrounds fall under the watch of the state Department of Health and Human Services, which requires them to be inspected each month by a trained staff member.

“Don't assume that something, that everything is as it should be. Always assume that there can be potential problems. There are risks,” said Kurt McDuffee, a certified playground inspector. “Safety surfacing is, without a doubt, the most, one of the most critical items.”

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's guidelines call for a soft, rubberized surface made of sand or wood chips to be a foot deep. Another common playground pitfall is the location of swings. Guidelines say if a swing is 10 feet high, then there needs to be 20 feet of a padded surface on either side.

At White Deer Park in Garner, the swing set is 10 feet high. However, the sidewalk on the left side is closer than the 20 feet that recommended by guidelines.

The City of Raleigh has one of the more rigorous inspection processes in the state. The city employs five full-time inspectors who inspect every park on a weekly basis. Due to its high usage, Pullen Park on Western Boulevard gets even more scrutiny and is checked twice a week.

“If you're not looking and you're not touching and you're not feeling, there ain't no way you can make sure all the bolts is tight. There ain't no way you can be sure it's safe for the kids to be playing on,” said Raleigh inspection supervisor Darryl Gardner.

Worn bushings prompted Gardner's team to take down the tire swing until new parts could be ordered. It was a similar story at Baileywick Park, where an inspector found issues with two slides and took them out of service. But diligence doesn't catch everything.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s playground safety checklist lists 15 things to look for:

  • Broken equipment, such as loose bolts, missing end caps, cracks, etc.
  • Broken glass and other trash
  • Cracks in plastics
  • Loose anchoring
  • Hazardous or dangerous debris
  • Insect damage
  • Problems with surfacing
  • Displaced loose-fill surfacing
  • Holes, flakes and/or buckling of unitary surfacing, such as rubber matting
  • User modifications, such as ropes tied to parts or equipment rearranged
  • Vandalism
  • Worn, loose, damaged or missing parts
  • Wood splitting
  • Rusted or corroded metals
  • Rot

At Carolina Pines Park on Lake Wheeler Road in Raleigh, caps were missing from bolts on equipment for small children earlier this month. Inspections this past year in Wake County showed that several schools needed more ground cover. During an October inspection at Lincoln Heights Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina, an inspector noted that large branches had fallen from a dying pine tree onto play areas. Work orders went in immediately to make the repairs.

Wake County, Johnston County and Chapel Hill school systems have a certified inspector review school playgrounds once a year. Cumberland County school playgrounds get two comprehensive checks a year. Wayne County has four checks a year. Franklin and Harnett schools require principals to turn in playground inspection checklists once a month.

Gardner says he thinks there needs to be more consistency. Until that happens, preventing playground pitfalls is everyone's job, McDuffee says.

“I think communities have a responsibility. I think the supervisors have a responsibility on the playground, usually the parents or maybe an older sibling, have a responsibility to report any problems,” he said. 


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  • Don Dickerson May 13, 2014
    user avatar

    A better story might have been WHY inspectors and indemnity clauses for municipalities and special insurance coverage is needed in the first place when equipment installed on public land is involved. Some of us do something really stupid and break an arm or leg, and we're sensible enough to know we were doing something short-sighted and chalk it up to experience. Some of us get a scrape or even a mild sunburn on public property and instantly hire a lawyer. I'm not a proponent of limiting lawsuits by any means, but maybe some reassertion of personal responsibility would go a fair way to ending the grab by the stupid and greedy and make public recreation a better deal for us all.

  • Obamacare returns again May 13, 2014

    Johnson & Johnson has noted it's 70% sales of the popular selling Band-Aid bandages depend on child falls and accidents particularly on playground equipment. Making these playgrounds safer would ultimately reduce sales of J&J's top product and force layoffs at the mega consumer packaged goods manufacturer.

  • nashville May 13, 2014

    More hard hitting reporting from WRAL. Loved the spooky music they played during this piece. Every body please go home and wrap cover your children with bubble wrap!!!

  • Tim Kelly May 13, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Hire NCPRR1. He obviously has nothing better to do with the bulk of his day and I for one would love to see him finally gainfully employed.

  • Itsmyopinion67 May 13, 2014

    Did you know that every second of the day a kid falls down and gets a boo boo. This HAS to stop!!! Thank you WRAL for this investigation. I propose we start a twitter campaign #saveourkidsfrombooboos

  • sinenomine May 13, 2014

    NCPRR1 has a valuable idea in assigning a G-man to follow every kid. It wouldn't be that hard. Just expand the NSA which already has an electronic tail on all of us.

  • ncprr1 May 13, 2014

    Great piece of investigative journalism, WRAL. I think that they should assign a representative from the government to each kid that wants to go outside, so that they can follow them around and make sure that everything they do is safe. If there aren't enough gvt employees, just hire more...otherwise the kids will just have to wait and take turns going outside. It's for the best, the children's safety comes first, dontchaknow.

  • dickle May 13, 2014

    the nanny state rolls on!
    can't you guys find something significant to report on?

  • AWakeMom May 13, 2014

    How did I ever survive my childhood without all of this hoop-la around where I played? Of course we were more into cow-tipping, corning cars and playing hide and seek. Those are all rather "safe" activities!!! (NOT)

  • Eric Murray May 13, 2014
    user avatar

    Glad to see some of the comments are in line with what I was thinking. Who is willing to pay yet another gov organization to go check on all playgrounds? Also, if the kids don't get some cuts, bruises and scrapes, how will they be prepared for the rock climbing, bungee jumping, riding bikes and skateboarding activity they are likely to do in their teens?