Bleacher Risk Management for Facility Owners and Operators
Facility owners and operators, whether private leagues, sportsplexes or public recreation departments and school districts, are responsible for protecting their spectators against defective bleachers. The same legal responsibility may be extended by contract to users of sports facilities under long-term lease agreements. Facility owners and operators should pursue both self-inspection of bleachers on a quarterly basis and hiring a licensed design professional to inspect every two years.
Types of bleachers
Bleachers are prevalent at private and public sports facilities. There are four different types:
- Permanent/stationary bleachers are large, outdoor, grandstand-style seating typically used for high school football
- Portable/movable bleachers are usually found outside and moved from one field to another as the sports seasons change
- Telescopic/folding bleachers are used indoors in gymnasiums
- Temporary are often kept in storage and assembled for special events such as fairs or golf tournaments
Bleacher injury statistics
An average of 10,000 bleacher-related injuries occur each year, according to the U.S.Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) injury records. Many of these injuries are serious and involve multiple injured parties and result in significant settlement or jury awards. Bleacher collapse is a particular concern of sports insurance underwriters as evidenced by the fact that some of the lower quality General Liability policies contain a bleacher collapse exclusion.
The leading causes of bleacher injuries include defects in design, manufacturing, installation, and lack of routine maintenance.
CPSC: The leading source of bleacher safety guidelines
The leading source of guidelines for bleacher safety is the CPSC’s report “Guidelines for Retrofitting Bleachers.” Many bleachers in use today were built in the 1990s and earlier. Unfortunately, they have defects that contribute to children falling off and through bleachers. The CPSC guidelines emphasize eliminating the hazards to prevent these types of falls. The report also addresses other sources of bleacher hazards, such as falls on bleachers.
The CPSC guidelines can be used by private and public facility owners and operators, manufacturers, designers, inspectors, and regulatory officials. These guidelines, which apply to all four bleacher types, are recommendations, not a standard or mandatory requirement. Most bleachers built after 2000 comply with CPSC guidelines.
Bleachers are also regulated by other national, state, and local codes. These codes apply to the design, manufacture, and installation of new bleachers. They also address past deficiencies that allowed children to fall off and through bleachers. However, these codes often do not apply to existing bleachers. One exception is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Code 102 2006 edition, which has mandatory standards regarding protection against fire, storms, and collapse.
Facility owner/operator checklist of bleacher safety guidelines
- Concrete supports: inspect concrete piers or slabs for cracks, heaving, or sinking.
- Wooden supports including seats and footboards: inspect for missing or corroded hardware, wet rot, dry rot, or cracking.
- Metal supports: inspect for missing fittings or fasteners, rust, broken welds, loose bolts, and bent or damaged cross braces.
- All supports: inspect for sabotage or damage from vehicle-related damage
Falls off back and sides:
- Guardrails should be present for all walking surfaces higher than 30 inches above the floor or ground.
- The top surface of the guardrail should be at least 42 inches above leading edge of footboard, seat board, or aisle, whichever is adjacent. Exception: when bleachers are adjacent to a wall that meets standards for guardrail height, and space between bleacher and wall does not allow passage of 4-inch sphere.
- Guardrail should have appropriate fencing to prevent passage of 4-inch sphere between openings in and under guardrails.
- Preventing children from climbing on guardrails: Vertical members are preferred as in-fills between bottom and top rails. However, if an in-fill such as fencing is used, any opening that could provide a foot hole for climbing, must be limited to a maximum width of 1.75 inches.
- Guardrails should be secure and free of damage.
Falls through bleachers:
- All foot boards should be present.
- Risers should be present in the space between seat boards and footboards whenever footboard is 30 inches or more above the floor or ground.
- Risers should close off enough of opening to not allow passage of a 4-inch sphere.
Falls while walking on bleachers:
- No missing or inadequate components that assist in access and outlet, such as aisles and handrails.
- Handrails should be secure and free of damage.
- Non-skid surfaces should be present.
- No tripping hazards, protrusions, or sharp edges on seats or walking surfaces.
Falls off bleacher stairs and ramps:
- Stairs should be fully enclosed with a guard railing on each side rising at least 42 inches above leading edge of walking surface.
- Guardrails should have appropriate fencing to prevent passageof 4-inch sphere between openings in and under guardrails.
- Guardrails should be secure and free of damage.
Formal Inspection Frequency
The CPSC recommends that bleachers be thoroughly inspected at least quarterly bytrained personnel. NFPA requires an annual inspection by the owner with any problems corrected immediately and documentation retained.
The CPSC also recommends and NFPA requires that a licensed design professional inspect the bleachers every two years and provide certification of their fitness for use. The inspection should include a review of the above checklist items, compliance with applicable building codes, and manufacturer’s instructions.
After inspection, a decision needs to be made whether to repair, renovate, or replace. Even though renovation and replacement can be expensive, this needs to be weighed against the astronomical legal defense and medical costs of a slip/trip/fall or bleacher collapse injury.
Bleacher Construction and Repairs
Facility owners/operators should do due diligence before selecting a bleacher manufacturer or installation contractor. Choose a manufacturer and installation contractor with an established track record of at least 10 years that carries General Liability insurance. The policy should include products/completed operations with limits of at least $1,000,000.
Facility owners/operators should not attempt their own major bleacher repairs. This risk should be transferred to a licensed and insured installer who follows the manufacturer’s instructions.
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) guidelines
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
International Code Council (ICC)
Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA)
Southern Building Code Congress (SBCCI)
International Conference of Building Codes (ICBO)
Applicable local building codes