Play It Safe
The Latest Playground Safety Trends
By Chris Gelbach
Playground safety has been a focus of both equipment manufacturers and regulators for decades. Yet injury numbers have changed little in recent years: More than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger visit emergency departments across the United States for playground injuries each year.
Given the nation's population increase, the fact that injury numbers have stayed steady reflects an overall increase in safety, if a marginal one. But many children are still being injured, and the majority in the same way. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 79 percent of playground injuries are the result of falls.
"One of the lessons that we're learning is that when children are active and aggressively playing, sometimes they fall," said Teri Hendy, a spokesperson for the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association's Voice of Play initiative and president and owner of Site Masters Inc., a design and safety consulting company based in Cincinnati, Ohio. "The surfacing we put under play equipment doesn't really address long-bone fractures, and that's where we see the greatest number of injuries."
Engineered wood fiber has historically been one of the best impact-attenuating surfaces, offering both good protection from serious head injuries and the advantage of displacing when a child falls. "We know that there's a level of protection in the fact that that surfacing moves away from the child's hand as the child is sliding through the wood fiber," Hendy said. "We have not been able to measure the protective characteristic, but we know that we have fewer long-bone fractures on loose surfaces like engineered wood fiber than on a unitary material like a poured-in-place rubber or a tile."
This consideration may be more important for higher pieces of equipment. "It may be more appropriate to put in loose fill when the equipment is higher than six feet, since we find that they don't get as many broken arms at those heights on loose fill as on solid surfacing," said Donna Thompson, Ph.D., executive director of the National Program for Playground Safety.
Loose fill's safety downside is that its protection lasts only as long as the material remains in place. It needs to be raked to remain level and replenished to maintain a safe depth. "People don't always do as good a job as we think they should in terms of keeping it raked and checked on," Thompson said. "So we usually recommend at least 12 inches of loose fill—how much you need depends on the height of the equipment."