As kids say goodbye to the lazy days of summer and head into another school year, they have so much to be excited about. Whether it’s making new friends or learning new subjects, students are anticipating a year full of new discoveries. One of the last things they’re thinking about are risks. But the unfortunate reality is that risk is everywhere, especially at schools.
Heading back to school means kids are not only hitting the books but also the school playgrounds, fields and gyms, where accidents are likely to happen. Risk managers, coaches and school administrators need to be on high alert during recess, gym class and school events to spot and mitigate potential dangers. Prevention is the best risk management strategy, helping students avoid injuries and schools avoid costly claims.
Risks at play
One of the riskiest times of the school day is recess. While playtime is an antidote to structured classroom time, it also presents opportunities for accidents ranging from scraped knees to broken bones. Each year, more than 230,000 injuries are associated with playgrounds.
On playgrounds and in gyms, the general hazards are:
- Equipment-related, including breakage, tip over, poor design or assembly;
- Slip and falls from, into or onto the equipment;
- Incidental accidents caused by hazards around, but not related to, the equipment; and
- Collisions with other students or the equipment.
The first two — equipment-related hazards and slip and falls — account for 81% of reported incidents. The U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that 63% of playground injuries are equipment-related. This means that the majority of injuries can be prevented by simply checking, updating or maintaining equipment.
Be well-equipped: Ensure equipment is safe and working properly
School administrators can reduce or eliminate playground hazards by following established guidelines and standards for effective risk management of playground and gym equipment.
- Inspection: First, make sure students are always properly supervised by teachers, coaches or other school officials when at play or practice. Install adequate signage that encourages students to be cautious and aware, and to follow the proper directions when using the equipment. Having the right surface can prevent some of the 20% of playground deaths caused by falls to the playground surface. Replace hard surfacing with fall-attenuating material, such as mulch, sand or pea gravel. Check that protective surfacing extends at least six feet in all directions from play equipment. Check for dangerous hardware, like open “S” hooks or protruding bolt ends. Check for sharp points or edges on equipment. Eliminate exposed concrete footings below surfacing material. Look out for tripping hazards, like rocks and tree stumps.
- Install, repair or change: School administrators must make the necessary changes — and follow through with written work order procedures — when equipment is found to be defective, when the basic safety measures are not being followed, or when the school staff doesn’t provide proper supervision. Playground and athletic equipment endure plenty of wear and tear due to weather and daily use. Devastating injuries may result if the equipment is not maintained and replaced when necessary, or has a design or manufacturing defect. Make sure elevated surfaces, like platforms and ramps, have guardrails to prevent falls. Playgrounds and gym facilities require regular checks and maintenance to confirm that equipment and surfacing are in good condition. Any broken or non-operating equipment should be removed or repaired as soon as possible.
- Ongoing operations, maintenance and inspections: Once everything has been thoroughly checked and determined to be up-to-par, the work doesn’t end. This is merely the baseline, and every school must commit to having clear operational procedures in place to carefully supervise students on playgrounds and regularly perform safety checks on all equipment. Inspect playgrounds regularly. Weekly, high-frequency inspections focus on vandalism, obvious hazards and areas impacted by regular use, such as displaced loose-fill surfacing material. Conduct low-frequency inspections quarterly to address hardware and equipment conditions. All public playgrounds should be audited when new equipment is installed to ensure compliance with appropriate standards. All findings need to be documented, and all inventories should be updated when changes are made. Schools must report any injuries and train all employees on how to spot hazardous conditions before accidents occur.
Gathering the student body for school-wide events is a great way to bolster school spirit. Such events also bring inherent risks. Schools need to anticipate and avoid mishaps such as bleacher collapses. Large crowds of students fired up over the big football game — standing or jumping on rickety, outdated structures — can be a recipe for disaster.
Common injuries range from painful splinters from older wooden railings to trip and falls and more serious suffering that occurs as a result of bleacher collapses. The lack of railings is a common cause or railings that are too flimsy to keep people from falling off the sides.
Another important thing to consider is the amount of space between footboards and seating. These spaces should not exceed four inches. For example, vertical rails must be no more than four inches apart from each other.
Keeping school stands up to their assigned safety standards is an essential component of risk mitigation. School administrators should also check their bleachers to make sure they are in proper working order. For example, retracting bleachers must pull out smoothly, and wooden seating should be sanded and lacquered to prevent splinters.
Be aware of the number of people attending a school event and respect bleacher weight limits. If an emergency occurs and evacuation is necessary, crowd size will impact your ability to get everyone out safely. Pay close attention not only to crowd size but also crowd behavior. School administrators must be trained to handle bad behavior, including fights. Beyond the financial costs of a bleacher or other crowd-related accident, the school will also incur reputational damage.
Slip and fall accidents
Slip and falls are a concern especially during severe weather when water and debris in hallways, classrooms and bathrooms present a real hazard. Cleaning or mopping, and food and drink spills also cause falls, as do bookbags and other items strewn on floors. Slip and fall accidents at schools can lead to broken bones, spinal injuries, traumatic head injuries, and other serious bodily harm. Schools have a high price to pay when they fail to be vigilant in preventing these hazards.
Insurance and risk professionals can facilitate and encourage a school’s commitment to safety by ensuring a formalized safety program is in place. These programs must include a robust inspection protocol that enables staff to find hazards before students do, and a process to take equipment out of service while repairs are made.
By performing simple inspections, ongoing maintenance, and staying ahead of danger and committed to a comprehensive risk management plan, schools can minimize risks so that students can focus on learning.
Here’s to a safe and happy school year for all!