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Feature Article - July 2019
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In Safe Keeping

The Right Surface Is Crucial to Playground Safety

By Dave Ramont


No matter what precautions parents, caregivers or teachers take, falls and accidents on playgrounds are inevitable. Each year, more than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger are treated in emergency departments for playground-related injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 20,000 of these result in Traumatic Brain Injury—including concussion—and nearly 70 percent of these accidents are due to falls.

But there are certain measures that playground managers can take to at least lessen the risks for children. These include addressing any rusty or broken equipment, making sure guardrails are in good condition to help prevent falls and keeping trip hazards such as tree stumps or rocks out of playground areas. And one of the biggest considerations is providing an effective safety surface—something soft and thick enough to absorb impact and help to keep a minor injury from turning into a severe one.

The days of dirt, grass, concrete or asphalt playground surfaces are (mostly) gone. These days, there are two categories of safety surfaces that we'll look at: loose fill and unitary.

Loose-fill surfaces include engineered wood fiber (EWF), loose fill rubber (LFR), sand and pea gravel.

Unitary surfaces are bound elements formed into tiles or rolled products. These surfaces include rubber tiles, artificial turf, poured-in-place rubber (PIP) or carpeting products.

Before retiring, Kenneth Kutska was the director of parks and planning for the Wheaton, Ill., park district. He's also a Certified Playground Safety

Inspector (CPSI) and has been involved with the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), AS™ International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) and the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA). He is currently the executive director of the International Playground Safety Institute (IPSI), traveling the world to teach and lecture about playground safety.

One training program that IPSI offers is called "Playground Surfacing: Putting Theory into Practice." Kutska said the objective of this program is to make sure the playground owner and designer's eyes are open to all issues related to each surface type.

"There is no perfect surface," he said. "Of course, price comes into play every time, but so does maintenance, repair and inspection to ensure compliance to current standards. A term we like to use when one considers what surface to purchase is 'Functional Longevity.' The amount of use and the local environmental conditions are critical to longevity and performance. Can the owner make repairs, or do they have to bring in a contractor? How expensive are the repairs? What are the purchasing specifications for length of warranty?"

No matter what precautions parents, caregivers or teachers take, falls and accidents on playgrounds are inevitable.

Indeed, playground managers and designers have many factors to look at when determining the best fit for their playground, as each site and situation is unique. Budget, accessibility, size of playground, types of playground equipment, climate and maintenance requirements all come into play. Safety standards and requirements need to be considered.

Loose-fill and unitary surfaces can both be a safe choice, and they both have pros and cons. The loose-fill surfaces are generally more affordable than unitary surfaces, and they're easier to install. When installed correctly, they offer good drainage and typically provide exceptional protection for falls. Loose-fill materials like EWF blend well with natural surroundings and complement eco-friendly playgrounds.

"Most loose-fill products are made from natural materials like wood, whereas unitary are usually synthetic," said Jeff Mrakovich, research and development manager for a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of recreation surfaces offering EWF and synthetic grass. "Synthetic products tend to get harder over time due to UV rays from the sun, so getting unitary surfaces impact tested periodically is recommended."

EWF is not a landscape mulch, and has been manufactured or engineered specifically for use as a playground safety surface. It is ground more finely than ordinary landscape mulch, is from virgin wood and has had the sawdust removed. EWF meets Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), ATSM, IPEMA and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) safety standards.

Mrakovich said that EWF offers excellent fall attenuation when properly maintained, but it's important to learn the origin of the product. "Recycled materials such as pallets have a greater risk of having dangerous elements in them. Pre-consumer woods have less exposure, which reduces the risk."

The higher the fall heights are at a playground, the thicker the surface must be, no matter the type of surface. If fall heights are above 10 feet, then loose-fill surfaces are more commonly utilized. Generally it's recommended to install and maintain a 12-inch thickness with all loose-fill surface materials because of natural compaction and scattering.

In fact, a disadvantage of loose-fill surfaces is that the product can get kicked away or displaced from frequently used areas. As a result, EWF and other loose-fill surfaces must be raked, replenished and compacted regularly to ensure safety and accessibility. "More maintenance is required with loose-fill, but there are accessory items like wear mats that help to maintain performance in high-wear areas," said Mrakovich.