That treehouse has to go

by Walter Olson on January 30, 2012

Kids at a Long Beach preschool had enjoyed it for thirty years without incident, but a state inspector said no. Headline on the resulting article: “Obsession with safety is ruining our playgrounds.” [Gale Holland, L.A. Times]

{ 35 comments }

1 Ron Miller 01.30.12 at 9:36 am

Another potential headline could be: “Kids Safer, Still Having as Much Fun”.

2 gitarcarver 01.30.12 at 10:52 am

Another potential headline could be: “Kids Safer, Still Having as Much Fun”.

I am not sure the statement from the kids bear out your premise they were having as much fun:

Watching it go, some of the children cried out, “Tell those bad men to bring our log back.”

And being that there were no accidents with the equipment, what would be statistically safer than “zero?”

3 DEM 01.30.12 at 11:49 am

Alas, many in our hysterically risk-averse modern society measure safety in under a subjective “what might happen” standard as opposed to an objective “what has happened” standard. Reminds me of a debate I had with some folks on my former street, who wanted to take the speed limit to 20 and erect all sorts of “traffic calming” barriers all over the street. All in the name of “safety.” Number of accidents of any kind on the street in the past 10 years: zero. This meant NOTHING to them. If the demonstrably safe can be made risk-free (in their own minds, of course), they’re for it, regardless of the costs.

4 Ron Miller 01.30.12 at 11:50 am

“It has never happened before so it will stay that way forever.”

- Some guy selling credit default swaps in 2008

5 The Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk 01.30.12 at 1:17 pm

I think Mr. Miller’s comments provide an excellent window into the mind of plaintiffs’ lawyers. Plaintiffs’ lawyers routinely suggest that past accidents are proof of defect or hazard or what have you. Here, however, a thirty-year track record of safety apparently is no evidence at all.

6 DEM 01.30.12 at 1:18 pm

You have us there, Ron. Who can argue with “some guy?” I do wonder, however, whether the long tale of human folly and poor judgment in the financial world really has anything to tell us about whether to take extraordinary measures against small physical risks.

7 wfjag 01.30.12 at 1:42 pm

“Even if the new playgrounds are safer — and that is disputed — children need to master progressive physical challenges to develop the confidence and judgment necessary for everyday life, playground experts say. Otherwise they grow up anxious and fearful. Playground thrills also make children smarter.”

DEM & The Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk , you are incorrect about Mr. Miller. Rather, growing up, he was only allowed to play on modern, safe (sterile) playgrounds. You should never argue with a man who likely never got grass stains on or ripped the knees out of his jeans.

8 gitarcarver 01.30.12 at 2:03 pm

- Some guy selling credit default swaps in 2008

Some guy was selling credit card swaps on a preschool’s playground?

Getting back on point, you seem to be saying that a statistical unknown of what dangers new equipment may bring into the school is less than the known “zero” issues they had before.

9 Jack Wilson 01.30.12 at 2:16 pm

When did safety start trumping everything else?

10 Ron Miller 01.30.12 at 2:22 pm

At some point, logic and reason must have their day.

Ex-Clerk (great name by the way) no one is suggesting it is NO EVIDENCE. But it is not dispositive evidence either. Someone looked at it and thought it was unsafe. Now, I have not seen it. So I’m inclined to defer to the guy that inspected it whose job is inspecting it over my own assumptions. I could be dead wrong about this. Maybe we all go look at it and decide it is safe. But, since none of us have done that, let’s defer to the guy who did.

DEM, it is called an analogy. They are used in discussions of issues. You can disagree, sure. But can’t you give a substantive response?

Finally, ole wfjag. Isn’t it just a little early to be getting personal? I’ve written a total of like 20 words, none of them were attacks on how anyone was raised. (And Rule #1 of the Internet is that if you act like you grew up all tough in blog comments, you didn’t. )

It is a cost benefit analysis on this treehouse. Maybe our formulas of calculation are different but we all largely agree. Keep it if it is safe, get rid of it if it is not. I don’t pretend to be sure whether this is the right call. You guys, typing away on your computers, do.

11 DEM 01.30.12 at 3:21 pm

The response was that it is a bad analogy. That many people considered CDS decent investments in 2008 (or Webvan in 2008, and so forth) doesn’t tell us anything about whether the risk of splinters or falls from tree houses justifies removing them from playgrounds. In the CDS case, the risk was not properly understood. In the case of the tree house, we do understand the risks – in a hypothetical sense, of course, since it appears to be the case that none have ever come to fruition.

12 gitarcarver 01.30.12 at 4:23 pm

I don’t pretend to be sure whether this is the right call.

Then your original statement of “Kids Safer, Still Having as Much Fun” was made in error? You were the one that opined the kids were safer without any evidence to back up your claim.

You guys, typing away on your computers, do.

Once again, how much safer can something be if no accidents have happened on the equipment?

So I’m inclined to defer to the guy that inspected it whose job is inspecting it over my own assumptions. I could be dead wrong about this. Maybe we all go look at it and decide it is safe. But, since none of us have done that, let’s defer to the guy who did.

The problem is Ron that the guy who inspected it was, according to the article, operating under the same rules for many years.

Apparently you see nothing wrong with a something being legal last year, but not year without the rules changing at all. You see nothing wrong with saying something is safer when statistically it cannot be.

In essence, the school is not as inductive to learning as it was before, the kids aren’t as happy, and the school will be forced to pay to replace perfectly safe equipment for new stuff that is no safer.

But at least they are following the rules……

…. this year……

…. or until a new inspector tells them differently.

13 Ron Miller 01.30.12 at 4:40 pm

DEM, the point is the fact that something has never happened does not mean it won’t. That’s the only point I was making. (For a cool illustration of this point, read Black Swan http://www.google.com/products/catalog?rlz=1C1CHFX_enUS465US465&q=black+swan+book&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=shop&cid=9473073406285933329&sa=X&ei=ag0nT5qZIIbt0gHM1cCwCA&ved=0CFUQ8wIwAg)

This does not mean that this particular treehouse does not pass a cost benefit muster. It means that you simply cannot conclude – with no other evidence – that because there have been no accidents, it means that it is safe. You can’t call the risk zero because an accident has never happened before. Gitcarver said the risk was zero because there had never been an accident. You and I both know this to be wrong.

14 Ron Miller 01.30.12 at 5:12 pm

You have to read more carefully, Gitcarver. It says POTENTIAL headline.

15 gitarcarver 01.30.12 at 5:56 pm

It says POTENTIAL headline.

A potential headline based on falsehoods?

Interesting.

16 D 01.30.12 at 5:57 pm

At a rate of 0 defects in 30 years, this equipment has already reached or is close to reaching the holy grail of quality – 6 sigma (which is 3.4 defects per million, or 1 in 294,118).
The children were crying and your think they are have just as much fun? Ron. Be a man and just admit it. You said something foolish. When you do, we’ll let you come back to the grown-up table.

17 DEM 01.30.12 at 7:09 pm

Ron we all understand that nothing is risk-free and that a record of complete safety for 20 years can be marred by one bad accident. That no one has yet drown in my neighborhood pool doesn’t mean it’s impossible that it will happen in the future, but it’s a good indicator that it’s plenty safe and shouldn’t be removed. Heck, we know to a virtual certainty that people will die swimming in the ocean every year, even at beaches that have lifeguards. It has powerful currents and animals that eat people live in it. Should swimming in the ocean be banned?

The risks identified here — falling from a treehouse that’s “too high” or getting a splinter from wood — are inherent in anything properly labeled a “treehouse.” The same for trees themselves, which — gasp! — are sometimes climbed by the little devils. Perhaps we can agree that the treehouses’s long record of zero injuries establishes that it is pretty darn safe and shouldn’t be removed. It ain’t broke, yet it is being fixed — er, removed entirely.

Parents that share the inspector’s overheated risk aversion and prefer to search for the elusive zero-risk playground can act accordingly. Preumably, that means locking themselves in their homes and cowering in terror at the awesome spectacle of life itself.

18 Hugo S. Cunningham 01.30.12 at 7:47 pm

The “risk-free” daycare facility creates its own risk– an increased chance of childhood obesity when a kid is discouraged from physical activity– a risk that “keeps on giving” for the rest of the kid’s life.

19 Ron Miller 01.30.12 at 9:36 pm

At some point, we have to introduce textbook economics to this discussion. Let’s say this treehouse kills a kid once every 180 years. That is an unacceptable level of risk for treehouse I think we would all agree. If treehouses killed at that rate, we would be talking about treehouses as a pandemic. (If you are willing to let a child die for a treehouse that kills every 180 years, stop reading here. I can’t talk sensibly to you.)

So if this were the hypothetical risk, that means the likelihood of this particular treehouse killing someone after 30 years is only 20%. So in the world of treehouse, 30 years is not indicia of much.

Please do not tell me that no one got hurt in this treehouse in 30 years. No one ever reported an injury. The idea that every treehouse injury gets reported is inane.

Now, look, if you think the risk on this particular tree house is 1 death for every 100,000 years, maybe you find that risk acceptable. What is the risk for this treehouse? (1) No one saw the treehouse, and (2) no one who has commented yet knows what the risk would is. The guy who inspects these for a living? Well, he might know.

We can’t eliminate all risk for children. I get that. I wish we could. But when I’m assessing treehouse safety, forgive me I choose an inspector over an anyonymous Overlawyered commenter named gitarcarver.

20 B. Thomas 01.31.12 at 12:29 am

In Ron’s world, tree houses come to life every 180 years and kill children. No wonder he trusts playground safety inspectors.

And, Ron, you should really re-think your personal definition of “pandemic.” For one thing, according to the CPSC (everyone’s favorite commission), 431 children under the age of 5 died from 2005 to 2009 in bathtub drownings. For another thing, 1 accidental death every 180 years is an absolutely incredibly low risk. Hell, it’s a lot more likely your child will choke on some solid food than that. May as well feed the little ones puree until they turn 18.

So…your analysis is well done. (As in blackened and tasteless, not good.) Just admit it. There is no evidence the tree house should have been removed except for the fact that some power hungry, safety crazy “inspector” thought so.

21 Bumper 01.31.12 at 2:37 am

Ron Miller,

In my less than humble opinion you really don’t have a grasp of what went on in California or in this thread. We’ve all taken wrong turns and been upset at discovering it, but it does not good to blame the sign maker. Just give it up and move on to something else.

And just for your edification my nom de plume was my call sign when I was a pilot, but I have played guitar for over five decades.

Thanks.

22 J.T. Wenting 01.31.12 at 4:33 am

“When did safety start trumping everything else?”

Never. But fear of lawsuits started doing just that about a decade ago, maybe a little more.
So because there’s a 0.0000000001% chance of someone stubbing their toe, everyone’s required to wear steel toe’d boots.

23 Ron Miller 01.31.12 at 9:04 am

B. Thomas, you have no misunderstand very fundamental statistics. It means like 3-5 kids in every elementary school choke to death. You obviously have your opinions which is fine. You can’t just make up your own facts.

If every treehouse in this country killed a child every 180 years of its existence – which it clearly not the case – we would have a pandemic of treehouse deaths. This is not an opinion. This is a fact.

In 2005, there were 87 fall deaths in kids under 15 years-old and under. Using the 1 in 180 years paradigm, the number of deaths would easily be in the thousands.

I have three small kids. I take their risk of accidental death very seriously. A few of the commenters here seem desperate to want to prove their macho bona fides but being blaze about the risk of injuries to children. Really, I swear, there are better ways to prove you are tough.

24 DEM 01.31.12 at 11:00 am

At some point, we have to introduce textbook economics to this discussion. Let’s say this treehouse kills a kid once every 180 years. That is an unacceptable level of risk for treehouse I think we would all agree.

___________________

Not at all. Kids die from bicycle accidents at a much higher rate. Heck, plastic buckets probably kill more than one kid every 180 years. Accidents happen, kids die, and we;ll never be able to change that. But we can certainly prevent them from living while they are here, and folks like this playground inspector are certainly making progress towards that dubious goal.

25 peter 01.31.12 at 8:45 pm

“What is the risk for this treehouse?……….The guy who inspects these for a living? Well, he might know”

Can you please explain how on earth anyone is able to assess the risk of somone dying is 1 every 180 years. What assessment method is used, what are the critera used in that assessment?

I would love to know cos I do Safety Risk assessments. We use criteria such as, how may people, how often is it used, for how long and types of injury. That is just a tool that puts the activity into a risk/consequence category, and can then be used to assess against the reasonablness and cost of applying precautions. We use past accident data to try to put some semblance of accuracy to that process.

There is just no way in the world that with zero injury data, someone can come up with this 180 year figure with any meaningful accuracy. At best it can only a stab at a a ballpark figure in order to catagorise the risk.

I am pretty sure that the same assessment criteria would come up with a conclusion that all stairs in the home should be banned.

26 Richard Nieporent 01.31.12 at 10:07 pm

Peter, Ron pulled the statistic of one death in 180 years out of thin air to try to justify his position. Worse he used a “lawyer trick” to change the topic from minor injury to death. The inspector wrote up the tree house because “The metal ladder to the playhouse, which had been there 30 years, could pinch the children, said Beverly Wright-Chrystal, a state child care licensing representative. Also, a log worn smooth by generations of boys and girls playing horsy and hide-and-go-seek would have to be sanded and painted because of a potential “splinter hazard,” Wright-Chrystal determined.” In other words there was no possibility of death being cause by the ladder or the log. I have no idea why Ron is making such an issue over this. If Ron is really concerned about protecting his kids from possible harm, I suggest that he never allow them to go in a car, go swimming, play sports or even take a bath.

27 boblipton 01.31.12 at 10:27 pm

So my father was trying to kill me when he built us that trreehouse. Good to know.

Bob

28 Amy Alkon 02.01.12 at 11:34 am

Most annoyingly, the lame LATimes couldn’t be bothered to send a photographer.

29 gitarcarver 02.01.12 at 2:08 pm

But when I’m assessing treehouse safety, forgive me I choose an inspector over an anyonymous Overlawyered commenter named gitarcarver.

Wow was this another cheap shot from you or what?

Let’s review what has happened here, Ron. You decided to postulate a headline not based on facts and then simply can’t say “sorry – I am mistaken.”

Secondly, you continue to fail to address how a ladder and tree house that has not had an accident or injury in thirty years is somehow less safe than a new ladder or tree house. Despite repeatedly being asked to explain how “less than zero” accidents is a real world number, you continue to run away.

Thirdly, I deal in wood Ron. It is one of my life’s passions. I have lots of experience in dealing with finishing, carving, manipulating, building and anything to do with wood. I have taught wood finishing and wood carving to real people in real settings. I guarantee you that I know more about wood than this inspector.

In fact, you make a false comparison when you claim the inspector is somehow more of an “expert” when all he is doing is following a set of rules – rules which he chose to ignore over the years. So when did this inspector gain his “expertise,” Ron? After last year’s inspection when he ignored the rule he is now enforcing? Before last year when he didn’t say anything about the log?

Tell me Ron, as you are one who always wants to claim anything not in the article doesn’t exist, how you know the inspector has more “expertise” with wood than anyone reading this?

But since you can’t do that, let me let you in on a little secret. The log was smooth because over the years, kids walking on it compressed the fibers. It it the only thing that can account for the smoothness in a natural log exposed to the air. If the inspector wanted the school to sand and paint the log, removing the layers of compressed fibers and introducing a sealer paint makes the log more susceptible to splintering – not less. Let me repeat that for you. What the inspector wanted made the situation more dangerous – not less.

Given what we know, it is clear that you and the inspector have no idea how to treat or deal with real wood in real world situations. You are agreeing with the inspector because he has a rulebook – not because of any “expertise” he has in the area.

Such a belief is fatally flawed, as is the rest of your “less than zero” argument.

30 Ron Miler 02.01.12 at 2:22 pm

Richard, you have to read what I’m writing: “If every treehouse in this country killed a child every 180 years of its existence – which it clearly not the case…” I’m not exactly trying to trick you here. I’m telling you were are using a made up number. (Some trick.) We are speaking in hypotheticals.

Gitcarver, you know wood. Super. Let’s say you know more than the inspector. But he is the one who actually LOOKED at the treehouse. Am I wrong on this? Have you looked at it? Would you really substitute your judgment for someone who looked at it? Really?

Finally, if you don’t understand how 30 years of NO REPORT THAT THE WRITER WAS AWARE OF serious injury – really who knows? – is dispositive on this issue of whether there is a risk, there is assuredly nothing else I can stay to you at this point.

My point of my original mock headline – which I called possible – is that maybe kids are safer and surviving without a particular treehouse. Clearly, there is no reasonable person who would say this is not possible based on the evidence we have here. The most hard core – “we focus too much on safety” proponent would agree with this.

31 Richard Nieporent 02.01.12 at 2:51 pm

I’m not exactly trying to trick you here.

Then why did you talk about killing, Ron? I notice that you didn’t address that in your response.

32 gitarcarver 02.01.12 at 3:25 pm

Gitcarver, you know wood. Super. Let’s say you know more than the inspector. But he is the one who actually LOOKED at the treehouse. Am I wrong on this? Have you looked at it? Would you really substitute your judgment for someone who looked at it? Really?

For someone who keeps admonishing people to “read what was written,” may I kindly suggest you take your own advice?

The log and the tree house are two separate issues. Let’s deal with the log. First you claimed the inspector knew more about wood than li’l ol’ anonymous me. Now that has been beaten back on both facts and actions, you have to go elsewhere without addressing that point, so you head to the tree house. (No pun intended.)

You are saying the inspector looked at the tree house and said “that isn’t safe.” The fact of the matter is that the safety record of the tree house puts that claim to rest. (Remember, there were no reports of incidents with the tree house. And to beat back your point even further, day care centers must keep records of kids when they get hurt and the treatment they received (if any.)) The tree house was and is safe. No matter how you want to try and spin it, you cannot.

Secondly, you seem to think that a new tree house will be safer. Once again, you simply choose not to address the issue which is “how can a tree house with no incidents be made safer?”

My point of my original mock headline – which I called possible

Once again, please read before commenting. Is it your contention that “Watching it go, some of the children cried out, “Tell those bad men to bring our log back.” is “more fun?”

Are kids crying your idea of fun? Is removing play things from kids your idea of fun?

Clearly, there is no reasonable person who would say this is not possible based on the evidence we have here.

This thread is full of people who would disagree with you. Either you are saying we are not “reasonable,” you have not read the comments, or you are simply posturing with rhetoric.

(HINT: When the world is against you, bet on the world.)

33 DensityDuck 02.01.12 at 6:06 pm

“This thread is full of people who would disagree with you.”

Look ma, it’s an Argument From Authority!

****

Saying “the world is full of danger” is an abdication of your responsibility as a parent.

****

Oh, and: Per the article, the inspector said that the treehouse should come down or be surrounded by padding, and the log should be sanded and painted. The playground owner decided instead to ragequit and tear everything down. It’s not like some little Hitler came in and was all “ZEES IS UNAUSORIZED! TEAR IT ALL DOWN, NOW! SCHNELL!”

34 Bumper 02.02.12 at 1:50 am

Ron Miller,

The first rule of foxholes is when you are in over you head quit digging . Your comments beyond the initial snarky one, reminded me of high school debates when a team knows they have been whipped and just started throwing out “the kitchen sink”, hoping something would stick. But it seldom do. Just about every assertion you have put forth is incorrect or based on faulty logic. But then statistics from the Department of Rectal Extractions usually are suspect.

I ran a TPA that specialized in youth group accident insurance for 38 years. During that period we insured thousands of preschools and day care centers through out the Sunbelt. In our records there were only two deaths from these two groups, one was an adult staff member who sacrificed his life to save two kids from a runaway trailer while they were on a field trip and the other at a former client’s daycare when a child pulled a bookcase over and it hit a sleeping child in the head. The latter could have been avoided if the teacher had stayed in the room, or the bookcase had been fastened to the wall.

In the community just to the east of where we live in the last month two small children were killed from errant gunfire while sitting in their own homes. But by your standards we should be outlawing trailers and books.

Don’t believe that the high tech fixes are a solution, the fancy ground padding is much more abrasive and skin rending than Mother Earth. And did you know that recent studies have found that kids who play outside and even eat a little dirt now and then are healthier because it helps build up their immune system.

To fill out the resume my wife has taught pre-school for over two and a half decades, with a variety of playground equipment that sometimes even I questioned and no child under her care (or at the entire preschool) has never had an accident that required any more than a bandaid and they go out on the playground every day the weather permits.

The two problems I see here are first the event took place in California, instigated by a state employee and anybody who has been reading here for even a few months has to be aware of the inanity and insanity that trickles down from Sacramento. While I have no knowledge of it, I suspect that the facility had been inspected prior to this event and must have previously passed muster. But a bureaucrat with an attitude, what a concept. But if there was a real problem the underwriter would have brought it to their attention, re: “cut down that tree and haul off that log or you are cancelled” or an outraged parent would have sued them. No mention of such events.

So we are left with that old liberal last gasp, “Think of the children.” Your children, my wife and I have already raised ours, and they are doing quite well, thank you.

35 Ron Miler 02.02.12 at 10:35 am

Gitacarver/Bumper, thanks for laying out your full resume in these comments. I feel like I know you real well now, your work, your hobbies, your wife, etc. (Favorite ice cream?) But I’ll a little too intimidated to respond. I’ll just slide back into by chair into like that debate student that knows he has been beat (as you mention) that you have turned me into. I just can’t compete.

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