Survey: MT playgrounds fall short on safety 

There’s more to be afraid of at your local playground than pint-sized bullies and strangers with candy. Structural flaws make Montana’s playgrounds some of the most unsafe in the nation, according to a new report by the consumer watchdog wing of the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG). Consumer Advocate Joshua Davis attributes this in part to Montana’s lack of playground safety laws, which the group will try to change in the next legislative session.

PIRGs across the country conduct a playground survey every four years. This year 28 playgrounds in Montana were surveyed, including seven in Missoula. All of the Montana playgrounds included in the survey lack adequate protective surfacing to cushion a child’s fall, the study found. This compares with 75 percent of playgrounds nationally that have the same flaw. MontPIRG found that 61 percent of Montana playgrounds had inadequate protective “fall zones” around slides, compared with 28 percent nationally. Montana playgrounds also beat the national average in terms of slides and climbers that are too high, the report found. Other defects included chipping or peeling paint, head entrapments and clothing entanglement hazards (usually hook-shaped equipment or openings that are too small), and the presence of pressure-treated wood that may contain carcinogenic substances.

Between April, 1996 and May, 2002, 211 children visited St. Patrick Hospital because of playground injuries, according to Trauma Services Director John Bleicher, including 21 with serious injuries that required hospital stays.

MontPIRG is working with Rep. Holly Raser (D–Missoula) to introduce a playground safety bill in the next legislative session. It would mandate safety standards for new equipment, but not require any retrofitting.

“We know that playground safety regulations reduce injury,” Davis says. He cites a study from North Carolina showing a drop in injuries since that state passed a similar law. As for retrofitting existing playgrounds, the group recommends that parents and community groups get involved.

“Parents should be advocates for safer local playgrounds,” says Teresa Jacobs, a consultant to local schools on playground safety issues.

At a press conference at the Emma Dickinson Elementary playground last week, Davis illustrated the point of the study by dropping a melon off the top of the slide. Left to fall to the ground, as the playground currently stands, the melon broke and splattered. With a six-inch pile of wood shavings donated by the Western Montana Fairgrounds, though, the next melon’s fall was cushioned. Woodchip donations like that are easy to obtain and implement, Davis says.

“We can accomplish playground safety because everyone wants it,” Jacobs says.

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