Safe In Their Seats?

The deaths of two children, one in Minnesota and one in Texas, have caused lawyers, legislators, and administrators to rethink the nuances of bleacher safety.

By Dr. Richard LaRue

Richard LaRue, DPE, is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Exercise and Sport Performance at the University of New England. He was a member of the Chairperson’s Roundtable that reviewed a draft of the the CPSC’s “Guidelines for Retrofitting Bleachers.”

Athletic Management, 14.5, August/September 2002,

When was the last time you took a good look at the condition of your bleachers? Have you had any failures in your bleacher operations? Have you observed or reported any injuries related to your bleachers? What do you know about bleacher safety?

According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), there were an estimated 19,200 bleacher-related injuries requiring emergency care in 1998. Of these injuries, 58 percent involved falls: 23 percent involved a fall from bleachers, while 35 percent resulted from a fall into or on the bleachers.

In our litigious society, the public is holding schools more accountable for bleacher safety. In the state of Minnesota, the death of a six-year-old boy spurred the State Legislature to enact The Minnesota Bleacher Safety Act in 1999, and Kentucky also considered similar legislation in 2000. In response, the CPSC issued new guidelines for bleacher safety last year.

The purpose of this article is to raise the level of awareness regarding bleacher safety and introduce the CPSC’s “Guidelines for Retrofitting Bleachers,” effective Jan. 1, 2001. Although the CPSC has published guidelines rather than standards, such documentation can have a significant role in establishing a “standard of care” to be used when determining negligence in accidents that occur from bleacher falls.

The Hazards
Millions of spectators watch sporting events from many different types of bleachers every year with no scrapes, trips, or falls, but it takes only one accident to call into question the safety of your school’s bleachers. Accidents range from a simple splinter or a child hitting her head while crawling under the bleachers, to bleacher collapse. In this section, I will detail the main hazards athletic directors should be aware of.

Large Gaps: Gaps of more than four inches between seatboards and footboards are considered unsafe because small children can slip and fall through. This is especially important where the opening would permit a fall of 30 inches or more. The CPSC recommends using rigid materials to close the opening between these surfaces.

Unsafe Guardrails: If guardrails are ineffective in preventing falls, they need to be replaced. In addition, guardrails are often attractive climbing targets for children. If your guardrail looks like a jungle gym in the eyes of a child, or is so tall that a child can pass under it, it is not safe. Here are some suggestions from the CPSC document:

• Guardrails should be in place on any bleacher where the top row is 30 or more inches off the ground.

• The top surface of the guardrails should be no less than 42 inches from the highest point of the bleachers.

• Nowhere in the guardrails should a four-inch diameter sphere be able to pass through.

• Guardrails should discourage climbing in one of three ways:

i. Use only vertical fill-ins between the top and bottom rails.

ii. If there are openings in fill-ins that could provide a foothold for climbing, the widest measurement of the opening where a foot could rest should be limited to 1.75 inches. Opening patterns that provide a ladder effect should be avoided.

iii. Where visibility would not be significantly impaired, use solid surfaces to fill in spaces.

Structural Problems: Older bleachers that have been poorly maintained or have aged due to exposure to weather, overuse, or misuse may become structurally unsound and could cause injury. Bleachers should be strong enough to handle a maximum load and be mechanically operational. Telescoping bleachers should be fully functional—the method of moving the bleachers in and out must be in perfect working order so employees are not harmed. With portable, movable, or temporary bleachers, ground anchoring should be used to avoid accidental movement or instability.

In addition, bleacher surfaces must be smooth and free from splintering, rusting, or pinching parts. And, whenever appropriate, sharp or protruding edges should be padded. This ensures the safety of both spectators in the bleachers and athletes who fall into bleachers.

Access and Egress: Spectators must be able to enter and leave seats easily and safely. Consider these guidelines:

• Aisles should have non-skid surfaces, be clearly marked and accessible from the seats, and be wide enough to allow spectators to quickly reach exits in an emergency.

• Walkways should be easily identified and solid handrails used to assist users with balance and movement up and down.

• Steps should not be blocked or used for additional seating.

• Safety signage should direct users to enter and leave bleachers in appropriate places and identify all points where caution should be exercised.

Hazards Underneath: The area underneath many bleachers is, in a child’s eyes, a wonderful place to explore and play. It’s also a great place to bang one’s head, climb to unsafe places, and get lost. For this reason, it’s important to completely block off the space under the bleachers.

If you have large rows of outdoor bleachers that cannot be closed to entrance, consider having someone supervise this area. Children should be instructed not to go under the bleachers and that they will be returned to their parents if they attempt to.

Because both the construction and operation of bleachers can vary widely, the CPSC guidelines do not make specific suggestions for how to fix hazardous bleachers. However, they do suggest that the work be done by individuals who are professionals in construction or maintenance. They also suggest that retrofit materials and methods selected “should prevent the introduction of new hazards, including possible tipover or collapse of bleachers due to improper structural loading of the retrofit hardware onto the bleachers ... All retrofit solutions should be designed to [meet the] load requirements of the governing building code.”

An Action Plan
The first step in making sure your bleachers are safe is setting up a schedule of regular inspections. The CPSC guidelines recommend you conduct inspections no less than four times a year, but an exact schedule should be based on the amount and type of use the bleachers experience. Inspections should be documented and include the date and signature of the supervisor performing them.

The objective of the inspection is to “identify any structural damage or degradation that could compromise safety.” Exactly what to look for will vary from school to school and bleacher to bleacher. Start by following the manufacturer’s guidelines for inspecting bleachers, then add areas as outlined in the above “Hazards” section. It often works well to develop a checklist for your particular bleachers, and to carry out the inspection in a systematic manner.

Who should conduct the inspections? Ideally, it should be a team that consists of the facility manager, an athletic administrator, and a risk manager from outside the athletic department. The external eyes of a risk manager may find safety problems that elude those who are more familiar with the athletic facility. If this person is not available, even a facility manager from another school can be helpful.

Whenever an inspection detects that the safe operation or use of the bleachers is in doubt, the bleachers should be physically barred from use. The next step is to call in additional experts. This may include the manufacturer, a licensed professional engineer, registered architect, or regulatory inspector. All problems should be corrected before the bleachers are used again.

Schools should also conduct a full structural inspection of all bleachers at least once a year. The services of an engineer, a registered architect, or a regulatory inspector should be hired for this task.

Along with regular inspections, athletic staff should learn to be vigilant about bleacher safety. All-staff in-services can provide pointers about daily safety measures, including reminders on supervising athletes. Facility managers should be thoroughly educated about manufacturers’ specifications with regard to safe operation of bleachers (especially for moving, expanding, or motorizing them). Student-athletes should be instructed never to play on or around the bleachers.

Spectators also need to be educated about bleacher safety. Emergency procedures should be posted in prominent areas, and signage should inform users of the policies that will be enforced by staff. These may include no jumping off bleachers or no playing under bleachers, for example. A key point is to publicize that parents and guardians are responsible for supervising their children at all times.

Finally, it’s important to keep records on any problems that do occur. The CPSC recommends keeping track of any injuries in order to help identify potential hazards or dangerous design features that should be corrected.

Sidebar #1: Beyond the Falls
Falls are not the only hazards related to bleachers. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, bleacher-related injuries can be classified into the following categories:

• Falling off bleachers.
• Falling and remaining on bleachers.
• Falling into bleachers from the playing floor.
• Running into bleachers while participating in an activity.
• Hitting the head, chin, finger, etc., on the bleachers while playing or crawling under them.
• Jumping off the bleachers.
• Injury from being on the bleachers (cuts, splinters, etc.).
• Bleacher collapse.

Sidebar #2: More Info
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s “Guidelines for Retrofitting Bleachers” offers more specific information on bleacher-associated injuries, retrofitting strategies, guardrail recommendations, and current codes and standards. It can be obtained for free from the CPSC’s Web site at:

Click on “Guidelines for Retrofitting Bleachers” to either open the 16-page document or download it to your hard drive and open it using the Acrobat Reader Program.