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Now that schools are back in session, most elementary schoolchildren spend time each day using playground equipment. This equipment includes slides, seesaws, monkey bars, swing sets and other items.

Kids love the action-packed fun that playground equipment provides. With that fun comes a lot of injury risk that adds up to thousands of emergency hospital visits annually. On the average, at least one child per month in the United States dies of injuries from playground equipment.Swings and swing sets account for the largest number of injuries, which usually occur when children jump or fall from swings or, less commonly, when children are struck by a moving swing. Climbing equipment ranks second as a cause of injury. Children slip and fall when swinging from rung to rung, jumping on or from bars, or doing stunts. Slides are ranked third in injury frequency. These three types of equipment account for about 80 percent of the injuries.

Fortunately, the majority of injuries are cuts, scrapes and bruises and are not life-threatening. However, a significant number of impact injuries are to the head and neck, where the potential for permanent neurological damage clearly exists. Much of the effort to improve playground safety focuses on reducing impact injuries in falls, which will in turn reduce the likelihood of severe head and neck injuries.

Two major factors determine the injury severity when a child falls. The first is the height of the fall and the second is the type of ground surface onto which the child falls (i.e., hard or soft).

Impact to the head from a 1-foot fall onto concrete or asphalt could be fatal, as could a 4-foot fall onto packed earth. Studies show that about half of the playground equipment in day-care settings is installed over hard surfaces. This problem is compounded by playground equipment sometimes being as high as 8 or even 10 feet above the ground.

Improvements in ground surfaces can greatly reduce the potential for serious injury in a fall. Energy-absorbing mats are one alternative. Loose materials such as sand, wood chips, or shredded rubber provide even more protection, keeping impact forces within tolerable limits in falls.

Improving the designs of playground equipment to reduce the likelihood of injuries is also suggested. Limiting the maximum height of slides, monkey bars, and swings will reduce injury potential. Guardrails for platforms of 4 feet in height or higher can prevent many falls.

When viewed as a potential source of injury for children, playgrounds and playground equipment can be designed to avoid many known hazards, so that children can be safer.

Cal Cazier of the Utah Department of Health has surveyed school playgrounds throughout the state. His reports indicate that Utah is no stranger to hazardous playgrounds containing unsafe equipment and designs.

If you would like to comment on developing safer playgrounds in Utah, call Cazier at the Utah Department of Health and tell him about any concern you might have. These comments would be most helpful if specific cases or dangerous situations that may have gone undetected by school officials could be cited.

We need not wait for an injury to occur if parents, school officials and other concerned people are alert to potentially hazardous situations that may go unnoticed by some yet are obvious to others.