Play It Safe
Regular Maintenance, Testing Vital to Improving Safety
By Deborah L. Vence
Children love playgrounds for the curvy slides, crawl tubes, swings, monkey bars and more, creating a world of endless fun. But keeping the surface of a playground safe has to be a top priority.
If falls do happen, having quality surface materials in place and conducting regular upkeep of playground surfaces, can help reduce the chance of serious injuries.
"Have a plan. Maintaining surfaces, whether loose-fill or unitary, is not rocket science. The problem I see is some playground owners just don't take the time to put a schedule together to make sure they are inspecting their playgrounds on a regular basis," said Jeff Mrakovich, research and development, certification and services manager for a Middletown, Pa.-based manufacturer of recreational surfacing products.
"Sending a couple of their workers to a playground safety inspector course to learn how to inspect a playground properly can really help a maintenance supervisor since they can't be everywhere all at once. Also, ask what the manufacturer recommends on how to maintain the surface you purchased," he advised. "The manufacturer will know best on how to maintain their surface properly."
All too often, surface maintenance is neglected, yet the playground is still in use. "Surfacing is missing, landscape fabric or concrete is exposed, chunks of the unitary surface are missing and kids are playing on it unaware of the injury risk below them," said Brad A. Pittam, CPSI, senior category development manager, playgrounds, for a Carrollton, Texas-based rubber products supplier.
What's important, too, is that playground owners follow the surfacing manufacturer's instructions for maintaining the playground safety surface.
"Additionally, I would love to see daily, weekly or monthly head drop testing on every playground to make sure it is providing enough head impact protection for the fall height of the equipment," Pittam added. "It would prove the surfacing is performing as needed and help determine if maintenance or replacement is needed."
The Source of Unsafe Surfaces
As experts indicated, some of the most common causes of unsafe surfaces at playgrounds include lack of maintenance, lack of education about the particular type of surfacing that is being used, surfaces being past their useful life, insufficient surfacing or no surface at all.
"The best thing a playground owner can do is to do their homework about what will be needed for their surfacing and then come up with a program to maintain it," Mrakovich said. "If it's a loose-fill surface that they are going to install themselves, get installation instructions from the vendor and follow them."
Some vendors, he said, might require certain installation techniques to give better accessibility or recommend other products, like wear mats, to reduce maintenance.
"Check to be sure you use the recommended thickness of the surface for the fall height required. Make a mark on the equipment post so you can see when the surface needs [to be] topped off," he said.
What's more, some manufacturers of synthetic surfaces might recommend an impact test every so often in order to make sure the surface is still impact resilient. The surface might look good on the top, but if it has begun to decay beneath the wear layer, it might not be safe, and the only way to determine that is to perform a drop test.
"There are many playground consulting companies that offer this. As far as professional installation is concerned, if you consider poured-in-place, make sure they are IPEMA (International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association) certified. IPEMA offers third-party testing by an independent lab," Mrakovich said.
One of the things that buyers don't realize, too, when buying poured-in-place is that IPEMA certifies the vendor's installation crews as well as the product itself since installation is so critical with this sort of surface.
"You wouldn't think drainage would lend to a surface's safety, but it does. Imagine a loose-fill surface that doesn't drain well in a cold climate where temperatures fluctuate, causing snow to melt and then re-freeze overnight," he said. "Any amount of frozen moisture that is within the surface makes the surface less resilient and unable to provide good impact attenuation. Eliminating water from the surface will minimize this and help the surface to last longer, too."
Moreover, when installing engineered wood fiber or poured-in-place surfaces, the installer must excavate to a certain depth in order to backfill with rubber or mulch and ensure enough cushion is present.
"If corners are cut, or if the installer is not educated, there will not be enough force reduction under the play equipment and could result in injury to a child," explained Matt Malles, director of sales for a Lancaster, Pa.-based company that manufactures playground safety surfacing.