Supplement Feature - September 2012
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Protect & Serve

Playground Safety Starts With the Surface

By Wynn St. Clair

Playgrounds should be fun, carefree places that inspire physical activity and young imaginations. And, fortunately, they can offer children both those things as long as recreation managers uphold their obligations to build and maintain safe sites. Such work starts with the selection of the correct protective surface, the foundation of any safe and inviting playground design. The options are endless, and the necessity is indisputable.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has long recognized the potential hazards that exist with the use of playground equipment, with more than 200,000 estimated emergency-room-treated injuries annually. The most recent study of 2,691 playground-equipment-related incidents reported to the CPSC from 2001 to 2008 indicates that falls are the most common hazard pattern, with 44 percent of those injuries stemming from falls.

The numbers were even higher a few decades ago, when an unplanned drop from the monkey bars could find a child thudding onto grass or, even worse, blacktop.

No other injury type on the playground comes remotely close, as the next highest category—equipment-related hazards, such as breakage, tip-over, design and assembly—represented 23 percent of recorded injuries. The other hazard patterns involved entrapment and colliding with other children or stationary equipment.

"The surfacing under and around playground equipment is one of the most important factors in reducing the likelihood of life-threatening head injuries. A fall onto a shock-absorbing surface is less likely to cause a serious head injury than a fall onto a hard surface," the CSPC states in its Public Playground Safety Handbook.

Of course, no surface can prevent all injuries. Broken bones and head bumps can occur at any playground, but with thoughtful planning and proactive testing, recreation managers can dramatically reduce injuries by selecting surface types that best address their playgrounds' dimensions and features and their patrons' abilities.

Concrete, asphalt or other hard surfaces should never be directly under playground equipment, according to the CPSC. Grass and dirt are not considered viable protective surfacing because wear and environmental factors can reduce their shock-absorbing effectiveness. Carpeting is also not appropriate unless it is tested to and complies with standards set by ASTM International, the organization formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials.

Fortunately, there are a plethora of options to consider, and many won't break the budget. The playground industry has greatly reduced the chances of injury in recent years by manufacturing various types of shock-absorbing surfaces. From loose-fill materials to pour-in-place surfacing systems and artificial turf, there are myriad ways—most of them environmentally friendly—for recreation managers to make their playgrounds safer, more accessible and better looking.

"The options are endless," said Jesse Padilla, a playground safety consultant based in North Texas. "In this day and age, there's no excuse for not having the proper surface. There is something out there to fit every budget and every playground design. It's a matter of assessing and understanding your park's needs and your community's needs."

The Iowa-based National Program for Playground Safety recommends several loose-fill materials or synthetic surfaces, including hardwood fiber chips, mulch, pea gravel, sand and shredded rubber. Loose fill has become the most popular surface on American playgrounds because of its relatively low cost.

Loose-fill materials, without question, are the most inexpensive safety option. But they're also—at least in theory—the surface requiring the most maintenance.

Playground caretakers should check the play area regularly to ensure it's spread evenly, safety experts said. Heavy playground traffic never fails to redistribute the surfacing, leaving dangerous bald spots that provide little cushion to falling children.