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How Safe Is Your Classroom? Identifying Hazards Before Accidents Happen
By Dr. Charlotte Hendricks,

There are many types and locations of child care environments. Some classrooms may be located in centers, churches, schools, or homes. Some facilities are newly constructed for the purpose of child care, while other programs are located in outdated or remodeled buildings. Regardless of the setting, it is our responsibility to assure the safety and well-being of children in our care at all times.

Keeping children safe involves education, supervision, and environment, with environment being the most crucial. A child caregiver cannot physically see every child at every second, so it's essential that caregivers identify and remove potential hazards. This creates an environment that allows children to move and play freely and safely, and allows the caregiver to spend more time in nurturing and caring for each child.

It can be difficult to identify hazards in a fully furnished classroom or play area. Therefore, this article examines how to inspect the facility from bottom to top. By starting with the floor and walls, and working your way through furnishings and materials, you can inspect all areas of your center, even if your facility is filled.

Entrances and Exits
Steps and entrance ramps should have sturdy handrails with two levels for both child and adult use. Doors should remain unlocked (or have panic bars) so they provide easy access to and from the building. Hallways should be clearly lighted and remain uncluttered in case of emergency exit.

Children love to look out windows, but they can fall through open windows or screens or break through glass panes. You can create a barrier in front of low windows by securing plastic safety gate panels to the walls to form a "fence" in front of the window. Lock windows or attach window guards that limit the distance a window may open. To prevent head entrapment, windows should not open more than 3 1/2".

Window coverings can also present safety hazards. Be sure to remove or securely tie any cords which could cause strangulation.

A young child can spot anything on the floor, and whatever it is, it will probably go in the mouth! Therefore, floors and floor coverings should be clean and free of debris or tripping hazards. Use carpet tape or rubber backing to prevent rugs from curling or slipping and carefully check for pins, staples, or other items which can hide in the carpet pile. Check floor tiles and baseboards for loose material, protruding nails, or splinters. Inspect carefully in corners and under furniture for paperclips, toy parts, and other small items.

Inspection of walls should include electrical outlets, wall coverings, bulletin boards, and pictures or decoration. First, all electrical outlets should be securely covered when not in use. While small "push-in" covers may meet licensing standards, they can become a choking hazard if a curious child removes them. Outlets that will not be used can be covered with solid closed electrical plates, available at hardware stores. If an outlet is used regularly, you can install a hinged or screw-in outlet guard that also covers the electrical cord end.

Pictures and wall decorations should be lightweight and securely fastened to the walls. Posters and artwork should be laminated or framed in lightweight plastic frames, rather than heavier wood and glass frames. Be sure that posters and other flammable coverings are well away from heat sources or electrical outlets.

Bulletin boards should be securely fastened to walls with screws or other hardware installed into the wall studs. Staples, thumbtacks, and putty are not appropriate for child care because these items often end up in a child's mouth. To decorate bulletin boards, you can cover them with colored paper and staple around the edges, then completely cover the line of staples with wide, clear packaging tape. This will prevent staples from being pulled out. Then, attach several wide strips of clear self-adhesive plastic or clear packaging tape to the board. Children's artwork or parent information can then be securely taped to this strip, yet easily removed without damaging the board or decoration.

Check around each room for hot pipes, heating units, or radiators that can burn a child. Work with your local fire marshall to determine the best way to prevent access to hot items. For example, pipes can be wrapped with approved insulating tape. Fireplace screens may prevent access to radiators or heating units. Never place furniture or flammable objects near hot items!

Many people never look up at the ceiling. If your room has removable ceiling tiles, check to be sure all are securely in place. Roof leaks can damage tiles and they can crumble and fall when you least expect it. Light fixtures should be properly wired, securely fastened to the ceiling, and inspected regularly. Smoke detectors are often placed on the ceiling, and these should be tested monthly.

Artwork, mobiles, and other decorations hung from the ceiling must be very lightweight and avoid strings or cords that can strangle a child. Live hanging plants are not recommended because they are heavy and watering can allow fertilizer and other chemicals to drip to the floor. Artificial plants in lightweight plastic pots are best for hanging.

Check all furniture for loose or protruding screws, nails, hinges, latches, or broken hardware. Furniture should have rounded edges and corners; you can use a sander or router to modify older furniture. Sand surfaces that are rough or splintered, repair cracks, and be sure surfaces are covered with non-lead based paint or varnish. Check doors, legs, joints, and other parts for stability.

Shelves, chests with drawers, and storage cabinets should be securely bolted to walls so they will not fall, even if a child tries to climb it. Self-standing furniture, such as bookshelves used for room dividers should be short and have wide bases to help prevent toppling. Drawers should have "stops" so they cannot be pulled out too far and fall on a child.

While you are checking the shelving and furniture, look for objects which could fall and injure a child. As children jump and play, heavy objects can "move" on shelves, ready to fall when you least expect it. Radios, televisions, and electrical appliances should be anchored to the shelf or table, with the cord well out of children's reach.

Cribs require special inspection. The crib can have several hazards, including crib design, bedding, toys, and positioning of the infant. There should be no loose, broken, or protruding brackets, screws, or other hardware. If you must repair a crib, be sure to use hardware (screws, bolts, etc.) that match the original hardware. To prevent strangulation, there should be no more than 2 3/8 inches between crib slats; corner posts should not protrude more than 1/16 inch; and cribs should not have cutout areas or carved wood or plastic on the headboard or footboard. Mattresses should be firm and fit snugly within the crib frame, and sheets should fit tightly without risk of coming loose. Do not place heavy blankets, pillows, or stuffed toys in the crib.

Toys and Supplies
Check blocks and other toys for rough or sharp edges, splinters, chipping paint, or other signs of wear. Repair broken toys if possible, or throw them away. Check toys for small or loose parts or parts that can be broken off. Young children can easily choke on small parts.

Poison Prevention
There are many items that can lead to childhood poisoning. Check with your local Poison Control Center before bringing plants into the program. Make sure all art supplies say "non-toxic." Chemical and cleaning agents should be stored out of reach and in a locked cabinet, preferably in a room away from the children and away from food supplies. Medications also must be out of reach and in a locked area.

Storage Closets
Storage closets, garages, workshops, and outer buildings can contain a multitude of hazards. Be sure these areas are inaccessible to children at all times. Don't rely on supervision - install a lock.

If possible, bathrooms should have child-sized fixtures. If not, then sturdy stools with wide, non-slip bases may be needed. Children's skin burns easily so hot water temperature should not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Clean up water spills immediately, and check under sinks for toxic or dangerous items. Toilet bowl cleaner can be deadly.

Children should not have access to kitchens, and certainly not when hot foods are being prepared. However, in some facilities, such as home child care, the kitchen is accessible so you must make it as safe as possible. Knives and other sharp objects should be stored well out of children's reach; electrical cords should be out of reach on counters; stoves, refrigerators, and appliances should be securely positions on the floor to prevent tipping over; and again, check under the sink for dangerous substances or items. Never rely on child safety latches for cabinet doors; children can often open these faster than adults can!

It is your responsible to keep children safe and this involves making the environment as safe as possible, supervising children at all times, and teaching children about safety. Be aware that most injuries are preventable.

Dr. Charlotte Hendricks, assistant editor of HealthyCHILDCare, specializes in the health and safety of young children and can be reached by e-mail at chendricks@wwisp.com.