Supplement Feature - September 2014
Find a printable version here

We All Fall Down

Education, Maintenance Key to Playground Surface Safety

By Deborah L. Vence

Make It Safe

The most common concern in playground safety is the Critical Fall Height (CFH) associated with structures or playground equipment.

"The thickness and safety rating of the surfacing must be installed in conjunction with the required CFH of the equipment. The second most important component is the ability for the surfacing to conceal dangerous objects. Some loose fill products are able to conceal sharp objects, litter or other dangerous materials that are not safe for a play environment," Malles said. "Typically, unitary surfaces do not have the ability to conceal objects within the surface."

Non-compliance of the surface, due to lack of maintenance or over-compression of the surface area, also is a top cause of unsafe surfaces.

"When over-compression is present in loose-fill surfacing, you will gradually lose the impact resistance and safety functionality associated with the surfacing," Malles said.

In addition, if the surface has been kicked away and the depth of it is insufficient to protect against a fall, you definitely have an unsafe situation.

So, to remedy the situation, "Some loose-fill surfacing suppliers offer wear mats to be placed in these high wear areas to minimize the risk of insufficient surfacing due to kick out," Mrakovich said.

Installing them properly is key, too.

For instance, "In order to keep the surface accessible, the edges should be buried and maintained even with the surface to make a smooth transition between the mat and the surface. Anchoring systems are available to help keep the mat in position and reduce the likelihood of vandalism," he said.

You wouldn't necessarily think drainage would lend itself to a surface's safety, either, but it does.

"Imagine a loose-fill surface that doesn't drain well in a cold climate where temperatures fluctuate, causing snow to melt and then re-freeze overnight," Mrakovich said. "Any amount of frozen moisture that is within the surface makes the surface less resilient and unable to provide good impact attenuation, so eliminating water from the surface will minimize this and help the surface to last longer, too."

Morningstar discussed in an article he wrote about safety surfacing that with regards to playground surface performance, to guarantee maximum performance of a playground's surface for a long period of time, you have to focus on maintenance. The concept of maintenance, he said, revolves around what one can do after the point of purchase to ensure that a product continues to function the way it was intended.

Still, with respect to fall safety or impact attenuation, there is no way to really know for sure if a playground is safe—unless it is tested.

"The AS standard for impact attenuation requires all surfaces to test under 1000 HIC and 200 Gmax," Morningstar said.

"It is always best practice to aim for number lower than that since these numbers represent maximum thresholds, which once exceeded, result in the playground having to be closed. How much lower? That may well be a balance between costs and safety factors, but generally speaking the lower the better," he said.

To guarantee maximum performance of a playground's surface for a long period of time, you have to focus on maintenance.

"After initial testing, surfaces should be retested periodically to ensure the surface is still in compliance. Surfaces will lose their ability to cushion falls over time and the degree to which depends on the type of surface and its initial HIC and Gmax scores," he added.

Outside of fall protection, unitary surfaces also should be visually inspected for foreign objects or contaminants.

"Loose fill surfaces should be inspected for buried debris, sharp objects, contaminants etc.," he added. "Loose fill surface should also be regularly raked and leveled to maintain a firm level surface (avoid trip hazards etc…)."