Problem Solver - August 2011
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Boost Fall Protection on the Playground

Each year in the United States, emergency departments treat more than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger for playground-related injuries. More than 70 percent of playground injuries are caused by falls to the surface. This means careful consideration must be given to what you put underneath your play equipment.

You can find a wide range of surface types, from loose fill like wood and rubber mulch to poured-in-place and tile surfaces made of rubber and other materials. Choosing the right surface is critical to ensuring you are providing adequate fall protection. On top of this, the right surface can ultimately lower your total cost of ownership.

Q: How can we ensure we're providing adequate fall protection?

A: First, let's talk about some of the standards. Playground safety surfaces are evaluated according to ASTM F1292, a standard that applies to the impact-absorbing properties of the surface. Two key measurements, HIC and Gmax, are taken, both of which relate to the surface's ability to absorb impact or cushion falls. A wide variety of surfaces can do the job, but you have to be sure you're installing them according to the manufacturer's specifications.

Problems arise when the surface is not installed according to these specifications. In addition, it's important to note that there will be differences between the way the surface performs in the lab and the conditions on your site. Variables such as age of the surface, moisture, maintenance, temperature extremes, exposure to ultraviolet light, contamination with other materials, compaction, loss of thickness, shrinkage, flooding and more will affect the performance of the surface in real life.

To deal with these types of issues, you should consider having your surface tested on site after installation. This will ensure your surface meets the claims of the manufacturer and is providing the protection you expect.

Other problems can arise when children don't use the play equipment as expected by manufacturers. Kids love to push boundaries. Who hasn't seen a child climb to the top of the railings around platforms? The problem is that safety surfaces are typically rated to protect children who fall from the height of the platform. When they fall from the height of the railing, the likelihood and severity of the resulting injury increases significantly. Unfortunately, children may be more likely to fall from the railing—3 feet higher than the height for which your surface is rated.

To address this problem, look for surfaces that are rated to provide protection from higher falls.

Q: How can we lower our total cost of ownership over the life of the surface?

A: Consider the cost of your surface over the long term when you're deciding which type of surface to install. Loose fill surfaces require regular maintenance to ensure they are providing adequate fall protection. Even within minutes of raking the material back under swings and the run-outs of slides, children at play can disrupt the loose fill, making it less safe.

One thing to consider is the rating of the surface. If you can find a surface that is providing fall protection above and beyond the requirements, you can be assured that the surface will remain compliant for a far longer period of time than other surfaces. For example, a surface that is rated to provide a high level of protection from the top of the railing, when compared with a surface that provides a similar—or even lower—level of protection from the height of the deck, will provide more protection for a longer period of time.

Another factor to consider is the porosity of the surface. Porous surfaces, such as poured-in-place require ongoing maintenance to ensure compliance. This can include vacuuming, sweeping and more because the porous surface allows sand and other materials into the system, reducing its safety performance. Non-porous surfaces help reduce ongoing maintenance costs and requirements, while maintaining a higher level of safety.


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