Bleacher law requires safety improvements

This article submitted by Linda Stelling on 4/26/00.

Chris Stanley remembers what it is like to be stuck in a bleacher.

"I was a skinny fifth grader," he recalled of the incident a dozen years ago. "Someone had dropped a glove through the bleachers at a basketball game in Glenwood. I volunteered to retrieve the glove thinking it would be no problem. My body barely fit through the opening, then my head became stuck. I couldn't go up as I had nothing to use for footing, and I couldn't go down."

As Stanley hung by his head, the game was interrupted to free him. The most painful part for Stanley was when the crowd evacuated the bleachers, rattling his skull with the vibrations.

A janitor had to go beneath the bleachers and push up while others pulled from above to dislodge Stanley. "I was probably stuck there five to ten minutes, but it seemed a long time," added Stanley, who laughs about the incident now.

Bleacher safety legislation was enacted in 1999 to prevent incidents like Stanleys. The legislation was spurred by the accident that claimed the life of a six-year-old boy in Hutchinson. He fell through a 15-inch gap in the bleachers at a hockey game and died after crashing to the concrete floor.

Last week, the Minnesota Legislature and Governor Ventura amended the safety legislation for bleachers. The amended law changes the compliance deadline from Jan. 1, 2001, to Jan. 1, 2002, to reduce cost pressures.

The law still requires a four-inch maximum space between bleacher floorboards, unless approved safety nets are installed. The rule exempts existing retractable bleachers with spaces less than nine inches.

No one has ever reported any injuries from falling through a bleacher at the Paynesville Area School District as far as Lew Storkamp, building and grounds supervisor, or Howard Caldwell, superintendent, knows.

Caldwell estimated it would cost the district anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000 to retrofit or replace the existing bleachers. "The amount will depend on how many bleachers are not in compliance," he said. Another factor will be the type of replacement seats.

Caldwell suspects the main football bleachers and the padded section in the high school gymnasium are not compliant. He was unsure about the other wooden bleachers in the gym. Kids can climb through these bleachers, indicating a gap large enough to fall through.

The bleachers in the high school gym were installed in 1969 when the school was built. They were motorized in 1992.

The bleachers in the middle school gym probably meet the guidelines as they have minimal gaps. The elementary school gym has tiered seating, not bleachers.

Another change in the amended law raises the minimum height for bleachers affected by the law. In the previous version, any bleacher taller than 30 inches would need to meet the standards. The threshold was raised to 55 inches in the revised version.

"With the change in legislation, our portable bleachers are in compliance," Storkamp said. The portable bleachers used on the sidelines for baseball, softball, and football games are only 50 inches high.

According to Storkamp, the school district isn't going to move forward with any repairs until after the bleachers are inspected and noncompliant bleachers conclusively identified. State health and safety funds are available to help cover the costs for upgrading the bleacher if the inspection is done by a certified inspector.

"The company was holding off doing many inspections until they knew what guidelines the Legislature was going to enact," Storkamp said.

Hockey and baseball
The bleacher law covers all bleachers, not just those owned by schools. So the Koronis Civic Arena and amateur baseball teams in the area will also be affected.

The new bleachers at the civic arena are probably in compliance as they have wood flooring with no gaps between the layers, according to Otto Naujokas, hockey association president.

"Safety influences us more than code," Naujokas added.

Volunteers are in the process of building new wooden bleachers for the south end of the arena, to replace the retractable bleachers used last year. The new bleachers will be three tiers high and enable spectators to see over the hockey boards.

Ron Schlangen, president of the Roscoe Recreation Club, said they haven't thought about the issue much. "We are meeting this week to clean the park," Schlangen said. "At that time, we will probably take a closer look at our bleachers to see if they meet the guidelines."

Roscoe has two sections of steel-framed bleachers that are between 10 and 15 years old. Schlangen doesn't recall any accidents happening at the ball park.

The board of directors for the Lake Henry Lakers discussed the bleacher bill at their meeting in January. They have put funds into their budget to retrofit the bleachers at their field, which are two to five years old.

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