Feature Article - March 2012
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Safe and Secure

Balancing Safety and Fun on the Playground

By Deborah L. Vence


Besides deciding on the type of surface for a playground, a field test of that surface material is an important step to take as well.

"We have recognized that the vast majority of injuries occur from falls off of equipment and onto the underlying surface. We also understand that all playground equipment is designed with an approximate 3-foot guardrail around all of the play decks designed for the sole reason of preventing falls to the surface," said Jeromy Morningstar, managing director of a Petrolia, Ontario, Canada-based company that specializes in the manufacture and distribution of safety surfacing products for use under children's play centers.

"This begs the question: Where are all of the kids falling from? It is our contention that falls are both more probable and more severe when kids are using the equipment in a manner not consistent with the manufacturer's original design intent, i.e., climbing over the railings, standing on the railing, etc.," he said.

For this reason, Morningstar said that his company designed a tile that performs almost 50 percent better than current safety standards.

"This means that although the safety standards require the playground surface to be safety rated to the height of the walking deck, our surface performs at the height of the railing," he said, noting that more comprehensive tests are done now to determine the impact of a fall from playground equipment.

For example, the Gmax, or g-force test, and the Head Injury Criteria (HIC) are two key measurements that are used to determine safety performance. HIC is defined as a measure of the likelihood of head injury arising from an impact.

What happens is that a playground owner will say that the surface impact needs to be under 1,000. But, then the surface tests at 950, which indicates that the surface is compliant. "To me, that's like purchasing new tires, and having almost all of the tread gone on day one," Morningstar said, adding that his company offers free performance testing on all of its surfaces.

"What most [playground] owner/operators don't understand is that these surfaces that are poured-in-place are porous. Poured-in-place gets fall protection, and in between all of those granules is air. When something hits it … the rubber can move in relation to air voids," he explained. For example, sand, bird excrement, etc., works into the pores of a surface. And when that happens, the cushioning property of a surface starts to decline. Over a period of time, a surface will begin to lose its impact attenuation.

Because this can happen, it's important that surfaces are tested over time, and not just at the time they're being installed.

"Our philosophy is that rather than try to make the equipment so safe that it becomes boring, let's focus on how we can remove the hazards. By that I mean the hidden dangers that are not seen and therefore not anticipated," Morningstar added. "A good example would be unsafe or underperforming surfaces—or surfaces that are performing, but just to the minimum requirements of the standards.

In this case, "What we've done is designed a surface that performs much lower than the standard," he said. "We identified certain criteria numbers, and we followed the lead of highway traffic and safety administration and current playground safety standards."