Childhood Heroes – Playground Inspector at work

Playground Inspector at work

It’s a wet Tuesday morning in the beginning of October, it has only just stopped drizzling. A cheerful Florian Halstenbach opens the side gate of a playground in Esslingen am Neckar, letting in the author of this article and the photographer. It is the sort of playground that any child could wish for: nestled amid trees, with a small rippling pond in the middle, a slide, a swing and a rope garden for balancing activities. It’s the second playground that Halstenbach inspects that day, two more will follow. “A thorough playground inspection takes around two hours”, the 34-year-old who is over 6 ft tall and works at the Stuttgart branch of DEKRA Automobil Gmbh explains. In one month, he checks up to 15 playgrounds. The formation for the job? “It takes an additional training program of one week with a final exam”, he tells us as we make our way over the wood chips toward a wooden tower with a slide.

Playground inspection checklist

The DEKRA worker carries his inspection tool kit in a silver aluminium case: a yardstick to check the prescribed measurements for side rails and exit sections on slides, as well as five red plastic shapes that are vaguely reminiscent of oversized arrows or spinning tops. “The test models are designed to simulate a child’s finger, foot, head, throat and body”, he explains. “That allows me to check if those body parts could be trapped, crushed or caught at certain points during play.” Such hazards are to be prevented at all cost. More key points on his safety checklist are stability testing, for example on wooden playground structures. “In Germany, we love wood as a building material. Essentially, it is a great substance. But it is also susceptible to the elements, it expands. This can cause loose screws or cracks in which decay can take hold more quickly.”

Playgrounds in comparison

Other European countries prefer plastic and lightweight metal. Halstenbach has observed that on vacation: “Although I don’t have kids myself, I tend to look at playgrounds out of professional curiosity. But don’t worry, I don’t carry my inspection tool kit me”, he laughs. However, the 34-year-old gets dead serious when it comes to his responsibility: “I take my job very seriously. In the worst-case-scenario, a kid’s life is at risk. While responsability and liability lie with the manufacturer and operator of the playgrounds, I always feel partly liable in my capacity as an expert.”

Responsible for children’s safety

All Halstenbach’s checks are governed by the standards DIN EN 1176 and DIN 18034. The DEKRA playground inspector doesn’t put too fine a point on it: “The spirit of the norms is: We’re not interested in normal bumps and scrapes.” In other words: even a regularly inspected playground is no risk-free zone. Children might bump into things, fall over or perhaps even break an arm. That risk should be factored in. Only serious and lasting injuries have to be prevented. “It is imperative to prevent the loss of a finger or an eye, or a strangulation.”

I take my job very seriously. In the worst-case-scenario, a kid’s life is at risk.

Florian Halstenbach

In cases of serious breaches, he has been forced to close down playgrounds. “Rotting beams on the swing frame are one of the main reasons. They imply a serious risk and we have to take action.” His main cause for concern are self-built playground structures, lovingly created by groups of parents and their children. “They are often very well made, but full of potential pitfalls that were not taken into account.”

Playground inspection passed

One remark has been added to the current inspection report for the operators of the playground in Esslingen: on one of the small trees, a child could get their head trapped in the fork of a branch. Halstenbach shows it using his test model representing a kid’s shoulder, throat and head. But this problem has a simple solution, e.g. with a rope between the higher branches, preventing any slippage down to the fork. So, no reason to close down. Or in other words: “Playground inspection passed.”