How to Make Public Parks Safer (Updated August 2021)
Parks and recreation areas are a great asset for people of all ages in your community. But they can quickly become a liability when safety protocols are not in place. Whether your city includes an intricate network of parks, buildings and trails or just one public park, you need to ensure the public can safely participate in park activities.
Activities like a simple tennis match or a quick run on a trail can result in an injury. So, how can you keep accidents from happening? To create and maintain safer park and recreation spaces, you must identify possible hazards associated with activities offered and develop a proactive strategy involving design, training and maintenance.
Luckily, your parks and recreation department can help you implement your safety efforts. Here’s how:
Regular Playground Inspections
Playground safety starts with design, so you should only use playground equipment from manufacturers that meet safety guidelines and standards. But even the best-designed playgrounds can present hazards if equipment is incorrectly installed, broken, worn or damaged. To keep play time fun and safe, your parks and rec staff should regularly inspect playgrounds.
- Cushion the fall—Improper or inadequate surfacing material underneath equipment is the largest contributor to playground-related injuries. Fill material should be checked frequently to make sure it’s deep enough and raked back into place when needed. Materials such as engineered wood fiber, shredded rubber mulch chips or mats made of safety-tested rubber or rubber-like materials are all good surfacing choices that help protect kids in the event of a fall. Check out our Playground Surface Protection for more information on fill materials.
- Check the equipment—What seems like a minor imperfection can quickly lead to injury. Look for and repair broken equipment, wood splinters, rust, peeling paint, protruding nails or bolt ends, and other sharp points and edges. Staff also needs to watch for gaps in equipment that can strangle a child if they catch on a drawstring or scarf around the neck.
- Consider equipment design—Elevated surfaces should have guardrails or protective barriers, such as a hooded structure at the top of a slide, in place to prevent accidental falls. Additionally, all stairs, steps and rungs should be evenly spaced and sized so small hands can easily grip them. You’ll also want to think about materials were used to build your equipment—wood can splinter with age while metal surfaces can easily become hot enough to cause serious burns.
- Think about layout—Overcrowded equipment poses a safety concern. The area under and around play equipment should be a minimum of 6 feet in all directions, with structures more than 30 inches high being at least 9 feet apart. When it comes to swings, make sure there is at least 24 inches between seats and no more than two seats in the same section of the structure. Swing set areas should also be twice the height of the suspending bar both in back and front of the swings (for example, if the top of the swing set is 10 feet high, the surfacing should extend 20 feet).
Want to make sure your community’s playgrounds are as safe as possible? Read our Playground Inspection Program document, use our playground safety checklist or view the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Public Playground Safety Handbook.
Periodic Park Audits
Your parks and rec department likely manages a variety of facilities that could be home to slip and fall hazards, a common cause of injury both for employees and members of the public. Help keep your visitors and staff safer with periodic audits and regular maintenance.
- Outdoor surfaces—Check for hazards on outdoor walking surfaces including sidewalks, trails and stairways. Not sure what to look for? We’ve got a helpful Slip, Trip and Fall Prevention Guide and sidewalk safety tips and checklist.
- Parking lots—Keep an eye out for and repair potholes or any broken concrete. Additionally, curbs and parking blocks should be painted yellow so park visitors can clearly see them. If your parking lots are used before dawn or after sunset, make sure they have adequate lighting. Simply conduct an audit after dark and look for dark spots and burned out lights.
- Indoor surfaces—Indoor facilities have slip and trip hazards too. If you have community centers or sports facilities, make sure you’re checking for safety issues like cluttered hallways, spilled liquids, tracked in moisture and cleaning procedures that make floors more slippery.
Thorough Hiring Practices
Parks and rec employees have access to lots of information, people and places, so it is important to hire employees you can trust and rely on.
- Consider background checks—These are especially important for positions that are sensitive in nature, such as those that have access to nonpublic resident information or spend time with kids. Make sure you’re following federal and state regulations, such as getting the applicant’s consent beforehand (we recommend checking with your legal counsel).
- Check driver history—For employees who will be driving municipal vehicles, make sure you’re hiring someone who has a good driver history and meets your driver qualifications.
- Train seasonal workers—Seasonal workers are often young or inexperienced, so take the time to provide adequate training. You may also want to consider providing a mentor that can answer questions and give guidance to seasonal workers. Additionally, workers under 18 are prohibited from performing certain types of hazardous work. Check OSHA’s Young Workers page for more information.
Proper Swimming Pool Preperation
Indoor and outdoor swimming pools are a fun destination, but they pose many safety risks. If your parks and rec department manages a public swimming pool, they need to take special precautions to keep your community safe.
- Train your lifeguards—Make sure all pool employees, especially lifeguards, have the right training to keep pool users safe. This includes experience with first aid and CPR, as well as a clear plan on how to handle emergencies. Additionally, if you have an automated external defibrillator (AED), make sure workers know how to use it.
- Practice chlorine safety—Employees should know how to properly handle, mix and store pool chemicals to avoid respiratory problems, eye injuries and skin injuries, as well as dangerous chemical reactions.
- Be inclusive—To make sure your pool is accessible to all visitors, so make sure your facilities meet ADA requirements for pool entry.
Security, Signage and More
Many park and recreation visitors are concerned about security, but there are many ways to help guests feel safer.
- Perform routine maintenance—Vandalism can increase the perception that a public area is unsafe, so show that your parks and recreation areas are cared for by repairing any damage and removing litter and graffiti as quickly as possible.
- Provide information—Use signage in the form of maps and descriptive text so people know where they are and how to get to where they want to go, helping them feel safer.
- Enforce rules—Enforcement of rules can help reduce inappropriate activities and increase guests’ sense of safety.
- Encourage widespread use—Develop supervised programs and attractions that encourage visitors and give your parks and recreation areas a positive reputation.
For more security suggestions, read Creating Safe Park Environments to Enhance Community Wellness from the National Recreation and Park Association.