'There are risks': NC playground inspections vary by school, town
Posted May 12
Updated May 13
Raleigh, N.C. — 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
- Worn, loose, damaged or missing parts
- Wood splitting
- Rusted or corroded metals
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.