Guest Column - November 2006
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Raising the Grade on Playground Surfacing Safety

Safety Surfacing

By Jim Dobmeier

hen did failure become an acceptable option? Americans have long strived for greatness—in business, in industry and in the security of our nation. Yet when it comes to the safety of our playgrounds, we continue to fall far below the acceptable level of what's needed to keep our children safe from preventable injuries.

While the most recent report card by the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) gives America's playgrounds a C+, surfacing scores continue to lag far behind. When appropriate depth of loose-fill material and appropriate surfacing for a six-foot use zone were assessed, America's playgrounds received an embarrassing F.

The question remains: What is needed to bring the grade up and create a playground able to deliver what is needed most—safety?

Some say the answer is as simple as taking steps to consistently maintain the required level of loose-fill material. But even with the most aggressive maintenance programs, the depth of a loose-fill surface is not deep enough to meet federal requirements. By definition, loose fill is just that—loose. In fact, moments after children take to a playground that uses loose material, the depth at critical fall areas is compromised. In reality, there is no way to maintain the appropriate level of loose fill consistently, so when loose fill is used in a playground, safety is immediately compromised.

As playground safety continues to gain attention, so do playground-surfacing options.

Although the initial investment is more expensive than loose fill, surfacing systems such as poured-in-place and tiles are now recognized as the safest option due to their consistency, durability and shock absorption. In addition, they are less expensive than loose fill over the life cycle of the product because there is no replenishment or maintenance cost. As the poured-in-place name implies, the surface is poured on-site and cures in place. Created with a mixture of urethane and rubber, a poured-in-place system will not move or shift as children play, meaning high-impact areas are never without or lacking in protection. Because poured-in-place surfaces are created on-site, thicknesses can be modified within the playground to meet varying critical fall heights. This minimizes cost without sacrificing the safety of the children.

Poured-in-place systems feature a granulated rubber top surface bound together by a high-strength, weather-resistant urethane. The top surface is troweled over a resilient rubber basemat, which provides the shock absorption in the system. Applying a generous volume of the granule-urethane mix in the top surface layer is critical to the structural integrity of the system and significantly impacts the life expectancy of the surface. The average life of a poured-in-place system is seven to 10 years, depending on use and climatic conditions. After its useful life, the surface can be re-topped at a fraction of the price of the initial investment. A re-top gives the surface a brand-new look, added resilience and many additional years of use.