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Keven Moore on Insurance: Renewed focus on bleacher safety needed as accidents mount

I can remember attending University of Kentucky football games at Commonwealth Stadium in the 1970s, when kids could wander off without the watchful eye of their parents. Often, I would venture beneath the end-zone bleachers, finding lost treasures while dodging beer bottles and other trash from above.

Little did I know the danger I was in.

 (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How can watching a game or event from the bleachers be so dangerous? Because many do not meet current safety codes and standards; they are simply accidents waiting to happen. Children are still getting injured and sometimes killed on bleachers. And many times, users do not notice the hazards until it is too late and an incident has occurred.

Just recently in Lexington, we were reminded of how dangerous outdated and out-of-code bleachers can be when a 2-year-old slipped through the opening of a set of bleachers in Douglas Park and fell 12 feet. The child was rushed to emergency room at the Kentucky Children’s Hospital, where he later passed away from his injuries. Relatives and friends held a vigil for the boy on the following Friday night, and the crowd was urged to sign a petition aimed at improving bleacher safety in our communities.

The subject of bleacher safety last gained a national audience in 1999, when the death of a 6-year-old boy sparked the rapid passage of groundbreaking legislation in Minnesota and accelerated the replacement of hundreds of antiquated seating systems throughout that state. Other states later tried to follow suit by trying to enact new legislation, including Kentucky in 2000.

But all efforts have since failed, and federal legislation has met a similar fate. Meanwhile, bleacher-related injuries continue to mount. There were an estimated 26,700 bleacher-related injuries in 2012. Approximately 7,200 of these injuries were the result of a person falling from or through bleachers onto the surface below. Approximately 5,620 of these falls involved children under 15 years old.

In 2012 alone, five children died in falls from bleachers. In one case, a 6-year-old fell from the bleachers through a 13-inch opening between the footboard and seatboard. In another incident, a 3-year-old fell through an opening in the guardrail.


There is no accurate inventory of exactly how many older, potentially dangerous sets of bleachers there are in use throughout the United States. But there are still several facilities using bleachers that were built well before building codes standards were adopted.

In 2001, the CPSC took a look at this public safety hazard and issued new guidelines to retrofit many aging bleachers to help identify and eliminate features that present a fall hazard. The guidelines were to be used by facility owners and operators, including school officials and parks and recreation personnel, manufacturers, designers, inspectors and regulatory officials to help promote and improve safety in many of these public facilities.

Unfortunately, many of those same safety concerns and hazards have still yet to be addressed. According to one bleacher safety report I read, as many as 80 to 85 percent of all bleachers have some sort of safety violation that needs to be addressed.

While inspecting and completing safety audits for several public schools, I think of all the memories that have been created in these facilities. Nevertheless, I still run across several minor to very serious safety issues, especially the older schools. Unfortunately for many of these smaller school districts, and especially smaller independent schools systems, they simply don’t have the funds to correct the problems.

What is happening, however, is that insurance carriers that underwrite liability exposures are beginning to apply pressure to retrofit or replace many of the older and dangerous bleachers; it is their assets on the line, after all, in the event of a serious injury or fatality.

So what happens is that many school districts are trying to adhere to the smaller, less expensive recommendations. However, if the entire grandstand is in need of replacing – well, that is too great of a capital expense and it gets placed on the wish-list behind all the other budgetary needs. I even had one school superintendent tell me “it’s not that I don’t want to adhere to these safety recommendations, my hands are tied as I simply don’t have the funds to take the action required to bring them into compliance.”

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Although infrequent, there is also the danger of a section of the bleachers collapsing, which has happened on several occasions throughout the country, even in the past couple of years.   This can occur from design errors, improper installation or setup, missing fittings or fasteners, deterioration or corrosion, sabotage, natural disasters, vehicle-related damage and excessive loading.

Luckily the newer bleacher design has come a long way, but what I am finding is that some schools and municipalities and athletic facility managers still take safety for granted. Many school administrators and facility managers just expect bleachers to work and don’t view them as a safety concern.

To complicate matters, in Kentucky and most other states, there aren’t state requirements for routine safety inspections of school and other public bleachers. Instead, individual school boards and municipalities are tasked with ensuring that their athletic facilities are safe. But without any regulatory standards, or a state agency monitoring or tracking bleacher safety, many bleachers go uninspected with very little preventive maintenance throughout the years.

All bleachers should be inspected periodically throughout the year and then again on an annual basis by an independent certified inspector. The inspection should identify structural damage to or deterioration of supports, bracing, seating boards, steps, railings, and fencing and openings.  

If your school, recreational department or local facility is considering buying a bleacher system, it is recommended that you check with the local building inspector to learn which building codes the town follows and what they will require of your bleacher system in terms of design, appropriate building materials, placement, safety controls (e.g., securing or anchoring the structure against tipping, capacity loadings and inspections) and maintenance.

If you ask me, this issue is more important than what most people recognize, but unfortunately it will probably take more children getting hurt on bleachers before a renewed focus on bleacher safety is taken serious again and real action occurs.

Be safe, my friends.

Keven Moore is director of Risk Management Services for Roeding Insurance (www.roedinginsurance.com). He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.


Click here to read more columns from Keven Moore.

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