Reduce public liability in landscape design and construction

The mitigation of liability is a critical concern in the design and construction of grounds and landscapes for public use. As our society becomes increasingly suit-conscious, critical and fatal personal injuries will add untold millions to the budgets of business and agencies. We can directly trace consumer, patron and user safety in public open spaces, commons and other assembly properties to the implementation of grounds-management policy and procedure, and to the personnel, supervisors and governing board or policy makers responsible for them.

The amount of money allocated to safety is an indication of the priority it has in an organization. However, to make the most of funds provided for safety, policy makers need to first examine the applications of safety in the care of grounds that the public uses. The safety of the public or patron includes the categories of health, security and well-being.

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Health Patron health is relevant in a couple of ways. First, health is achieved through the prevention of disease or sickness through personal hygiene. Second, health is achieved through the prevention of disease or sickness with personnel/occupational and environmental controls. Both aspects of health are extremely important to the administration and operation of grounds and landscapes. Extensive literature is available on personnel health (though not specifically related to parks), but little literature is available on environmental health.

Personnel health as it relates to hygiene and sanitation is the responsibility of the administration and the maintenance staff. They must ensure that: * Potable water utilities have good water quality * Valves and backflow preventers are operable, preventing contamination from irrigation water * Disinfecting systems are operable in pools, shower rooms and waterfronts * Restrooms, water closets, sanitary systems, sewers, septic tanks and tile fields are clean and operable * Lavatory facilities receive periodic inspection and cleaning on a scheduled basis.

Management should review all other systems that affect hygiene or sanitation. Establish check lists and regularly inspect all garbage receptacles. Disinfect, wash down and repaint them, as well as storage bins and other equipment and facilities. Establish medical forms and symptom checklists to provide early detection of any communicable diseases that might be passed by oral or physical contact. An increasing problem in parks is feces accumulation from dogs, geese and ducks. To track this, establish a monitoring system to check bacterial levels of soils and water.

Environmental health in parks involves the elimination of insects such as bees, wasps, mosquitoes and flies. These insects can disrupt and even cause extreme harm to park users. Monitor all park areas, spray insecticides when necessary and remove attractions to such insects. Some plants are dangerous because they are toxic or because of spines or thorns-affix warning labels to hazardous plants or simply remove them. Debris also is an environmental-health problem. Excessive accumulation of equipment, paper and other trash is an environmental hazard because it can encourage rodents and other animals that transmit disease or give serious bites. Therefore, establish a vermin-elimination program starting with cleaning up trash.

Security You should consider two aspects of security. The first is protection from the anti-social behavior of others. Next comes protecting one's property from such anti-social behavior.

It is imperative that landscape designs incorporate features that reduce actual victimization and the fear of victimization. This implies not only to discouraging criminals by apprehension (the responsibility of police) but also the potential for victimization inherent in a landscape.

Study each public area to determine its vulnerability. This includes the following aspects: * Physical layout. Create flow diagrams that reflect how traffic flows, how unassigned, unused or unsupervised spaces can encourage undesirable elements and how other spaces can cause conflicts and congestion. * Architectural design. Look at the architectural scheme to determine how hidden areas, shrub and tree masses, gullies, rock outcrops and other areas offer concealment. * Entry-point controls. Learn where forced entry and intrusion onto the grounds is possible. Study areas that are concealed or uncontained and where barriers can reduce intrusions. * Lighting. Determine areas that are vulnerable to crime or where illumination is lacking. Looking at each of these factors helps you pinpoint ways you can contribute to a more secure environment.

Well-being Well-being involves the mitigation of injury or property loss by accident and the mitigation of injury or property loss by crime. Both aspects are extremely important to the administration and operation of grounds involving the public. Little has been written in the field of grounds care involving consumer safety. Though awareness is increasing of the importance of governmental, institutional and other organizational groups in protecting themselves from litigious patrons, liability judgments are occurring more than ever before. This suggests that we are not implementing the simple precautions involved in protecting patron health, security and well-being as well as we could be.

Public safety deals with three types of factors. Safety exists to the extent that design, construction and maintenance focus on it. Safety must fit into the management system delivering the service, and it must be concerned with reducing hazards and dangers in both the physical property and its programs. Hazards and dangers don't always come from some external intruder intent on causing bodily harm or property damage. Mismanagement also can create conditions that result in bodily harm or property damage. Therefore, always make sure that your operational budget includes allocations for inspection and evaluation. Establish a detailed checklist or guidelines (see boxed information, at left) that can pinpoint specific hazards or dangers in public parks and other facilities.

Presently, the Consumer Products Safety Commission is taking tremendous steps to overcome the hazards and dangers to consumers in many products, as well as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to employees in the workplace. These two organizations can provide detailed information about mitigating site hazards.

Another aspect of internal problems in landscape design and construction relates to supervision of activities and whether personnel are screened and qualified. Businesses and agencies often organize events and activities for an inappropriate group, in an inadequate site, with unsafe equipment or with personnel that are untrained, insensitive, over- or under-reactive or just unconcerned. Such poorly conceived events not only can cause harm to the public consumer or user but even hostility among the public. The design and construction of a facility should promote maintenance efficiency that encourages a safe environment for patrons.

Here's an example of how important it is to be vigilant about spotting potential hazards. Fencing was an important consideration in a recent jury verdict. A decision in favor of the plaintiff was costly to the defendant (a corporation). The plaintiff was injured when he scaled a 6-foot fence to retrieve a neighbor's child who had slipped between the fence's pickets-spaced 5.75 inches apart-and ran into a busy parking lot and driveway. Although the jury apportioned the plaintiff 40 percent of the negligence, it attached the following statement to the verdict:

"Due to the fact that this case was based primarily on safety issues regarding all play areas, we the jury strongly recommend that ABC Corp. Inc. and/or its owner/operators modify all playground fencing to include narrowing the fence spacing to 4 inches or less or other adequate modifications that utilize current technologies....We also recommend that signage be placed on all fencing (not conforming to the above recommendations) that there is a danger to children of all ages passing through the fencing. We also recommend that ABC Corp. Inc....utilize community-service program[s] to make citizens aware of [the] dangers involved in playland/playplace fencing and [to] educate parents and children on playground safety. These recommendations have been made in lieu of larger monetary awards so that those monies may be used toward modifications of fencing."

The plaintiff expressed enthusiasm that such a simple hazard-with such dangerous implications for injuries and fatalities-could easily be corrected. He indicated that the order obligated such corporations to expend the necessary funds to make public-use areas safer.

This example illustrates that the design and construction of publicly used grounds must comply with existing codes and standards-which includes 4-inch spacing between fence pickets.

The landscape profession's mission with regard to safety is to satisfy the health, security and well-being of the public through the reduction of manmade and natural hazards. The way for grounds-care professionals to address this obligation is to mitigate liability in every way. Fulfilling this obligation-to be responsible and not liable-depends on constant safety consciousness and awareness. Because professional landscapers, which enhance and construct the grounds and landscapes of all public-use environments, can become the targets of citizens eager to sue, the need for adequate landscape design and construction is for more than the sake of appearance.

Dr. Arthur H. Mittelstaedt Jr. is executive director of the Recreation Safety Institute (Ronkonkoma, N.Y.).

In the design and construction of landscapes, grounds and other public areas, consider possible unsafe situations and conditions arising from the following factors: * Placement of alcoves, entrances and columns * Location of closets and unused alcoves * Furnishings protruding from walls * Amount and intensity of lighting, both indoor and outside * Location of lighting fixtures * Location of walks in relation to walls, boulders, trees and other obstructions or concealments * Control-booth or control-office location (should have good visibility) * Location of signs, notices and other directions * Non-flush or non-recessed wall-mounted fixtures * Placement of detectors for smoke, heat, sound, movement or video * Location of exit doors * Location of locker and rest rooms * Number of entrances and exits * Visibility of restroom entries and exits * Alarms in private rooms such as lockers and restrooms * Number of outdoor-area lights * Accessibility of call boxes or alarms * Location of benches, monuments and other structures * Types of gates and locking devices * Placement of mats, docks, sensors and other detection devices * Width of paths used by emergency vehicles * Open surveillance potential of maintenance and storage areas * Surveillance devices such as sensors, lasers, TV and audio machines * Size and type of fencing.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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