A Seasoned Approach to Playground Safety
Keeping Kids Safe in Every Season
By Brad Pittam
Despite cold temperatures in many parts of the country, children still spend time outside on the playground swinging, climbing, sliding and running in the winter months. While the spring and summer months may seem like the most popular time for such outdoor recreation, playgrounds are often used by children year-round. In many areas, that can mean playgrounds are in use throughout four seasons, including periods of snow, sleet, rain, sun, freezing temperatures, high winds and everything else that Mother Nature sends our way.
Throughout the seasons and during all kinds of weather conditions, playground safety surfaces must be able to withstand the elements. The surface should always remain soft enough to cushion a child's fall—no matter the weather. A study by the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) indicates that 79 percent of playground injuries occur as the result of a fall in which the surfacing material was inappropriate or inadequate. Unfortunately, not all playground surfacing materials are designed to keep kids safe, and certain weather conditions—such as freezing temperatures—can increase the chance for injury.
Playing in a Winter Wonderland
Many parents may not know that schools across the country have specific policies stating that if wind chills are above a certain level, students are allowed to play outside on the playground equipment. For example, one school in the Chicago area requires outside recess on the playground when the wind chill is above 10 degrees.
At these low temperatures, a playground safety surface made of wood mulch or engineered wood fiber may not provide children with the proper fall height protection required to avoid a serious injury.
These materials can absorb and retain water, and when temperatures fall, the water freezes. That means that safety surfaces made from wood mulch or engineered wood fiber can literally be frozen solid, providing inadequate to no fall protection. This problem is compounded if the playground doesn't allow for adequate drainage. Water can collect within the wood mulch and freeze and remain frozen even when the top layer has thawed in the spring time. A probe can be used at various points in the playground during the springtime to determine when the safety surface has fully thawed and returned to offering optimum head impact protection.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends that a playground safety surface provide sufficient head impact protection for the equipment on site. The surface must provide a minimal risk of a critical brain injury if a child were to fall from the highest point on the playground equipment. A critical brain injury is defined as a fractured skull and loss of consciousness for at least 12 hours with non-recoverable brain damage. This is determined by a test called the ASTM F1292.
According to the CPSC and the ASTM F1292 test, the maximum allowable score a playground surface can receive is a Head Injury Criterion (HIC) of 1,000. At a HIC of 1,000, there is a 2 percent chance of death and an 8 percent chance of a critical brain injury. A HIC of 0 results in no injury—the lower the number the better.
How dangerous can wood mulch and engineered wood fiber be? Head impact testing was conducted per ASTM F1292 standards on the wood mulch safety surface at playgrounds when the ambient temperature was nearly 10 degrees Fahrenheit. When frozen wood mulch was tested, it surpassed the 1,000 mark from as low as 2 feet. At just under 5 feet, 7 inches, the HIC was 1,800, which correlates to a 10 percent chance for death and a 45 percent chance of a critical brain injury after a head impact.
For comparison, it's interesting to note that crashing in a car at 40 mph can be much safer than simply falling from 2 feet onto a frozen wood mulch playground safety surface. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for an automobile to earn a "Good" rating in a 40 mph front offset crash, the drivers head can not receive an HIC of more than 560. Even a car earning a "Poor" rating, where the drivers head receives a HIC of 840 or more, can be safer than a fall from two feet onto frozen wood mulch.
While wood mulch can offer proper protection in warmer conditions when properly installed and maintained, playground owners need to be aware of the potential dangers when wet wood mulch freezes.
There are safety surfacing alternatives that can withstand the elements and will not absorb water and freeze, including rubber mulch and unitary surfaces using rubber mulch as the impact layer. Playgrounds that have safety surfaces made with these materials and installed with proper drainage will offer a consistent fall-height protection regardless of weather.
However, it is likely that children will still be playing on playgrounds that use all types of safety surfacing during the cold winter months that many areas of the country experience. During this time, playgrounds with wood mulch surfaces should be checked frequently by parks and recreation departments, schools and municipalities. If the surfacing is frozen, use of the playground should be restricted accordingly. It is the only way to ensure that kids are kept safe and protected from injuries that are the result of falling on a frozen wood mulch surface.
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