Supplement Feature - October 2015
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Play It Safe

Regular Maintenance, Testing Vital to Improving Safety

By Deborah L. Vence

Maintenance Needs

Caring for playground surfaces involves planning and commitment, ensuring that maintenance is done on a regular basis.

For example, for EWF, the responsible parties must rake and groom the mulch. "Basically, facility owners have to prevent the EWF from compacting into a harder surface. It must also be backfilled, as needed, to replace mulch that gets kicked out of the play area or degrades into the subsurface," Malles said. "Poured-in-place and tiles can be swept as needed and typically washed or pressure-washed annually."

For unitary systems, the only upkeep involves blowing, raking or hosing off any debris on the surface. "With loose-fill materials, depending on the degree of usage," Dobmeier said, "hourly or daily leveling and weekly or monthly replenishing is a must because of the very regular [distribution] of these particles in the high-impact areas."

Loose-fill surfaces should be maintained especially in high-use areas, such as swings, slide exits, spinner toys and entrances/exits to the play area, Mrakovich suggested. "If these areas are not maintained, you end up with divots and holes under high-use impact zones, and this can be a hazard as well as making the play area inaccessible," he said. "Many owners forget that loose-fill surfaces also compact from their original installed thickness and eventually you can have a drop-off from a surrounding border, which could make access to their playgrounds practically impossible."

You can top off the surface with more surfacing in order to bring the levels back up, or ask manufacturers if they offer wear mats for high-use zones and access ramps to make a more permanent entrance and exit into and out of the play area.

Unitary surfaces do not have the maintenance needs that loose-fill surfaces do, but keeping them clean is essential to getting the most out of them.

"Periodically, blow them off and clean up spills when they occur," Mrakovich recommended. "Pay close attention to the high-use areas as these areas may need [to be] patched periodically or if using artificial turf that relies on rubber infill for impact attenuation, be sure the infill is replenished to whatever the manufacturer specifies for the particular height of the equipment."

Seeing as unitary surfaces might become harder over time, it is a good idea to get a playground safety inspector to come out and perform a drop test using an approved impact testing device that can give proper Gmax and HIC (Head Injury Criterion) readings.

"Unitary surfaces may appear 'OK' to the naked eye, but you don't know what is going on beneath the surface," Mrakovich said.

Pittam added, "Maintenance for loose fill surfaces is similar in that periodic raking, leveling and compaction is required in order to provide maximum head impact attenuation and wheelchair accessibility. EWF requires periodic replenishment depending upon use and weather."

The top layer of unitary surfaces requires routine inspections for cracks and tears.

"These must be addressed to avoid tripping hazards and to ensure the surface is providing maximum head impact protection and wheelchair accessibility," Pittam said.

No matter the system, though, Pittam is a firm believer that playground owners need to incorporate head drop testing into their maintenance routine in order to determine and verify the critical fall height protection provided by the system.

"A surface may look good, be installed to the manufacturer's recommended depth, but still fail to provide sufficient fall height protection for the equipment," he added. "You can't tell how much head impact protection a surface is providing by simply looking at it or walking on it."