We All Fall Down

Education, Maintenance Key to Playground Surface Safety

By Deborah L. Vence

Falls to the surface are the number one cause of injury on the playground, which is why it's so important that those surfaces are maintained regularly and composed of the appropriate materials to maximize safety and prevent serious injuries.

"The most common cause for unsafe surfaces would be lack of maintenance and education about the particular type of surface they are using. The best thing a playground owner can do is to do their homework about what will be needed for their surfacing, and then come up with a program to maintain it," said Jeff Mrakovich, director of surfacing products for a Middletown, Pa.-based company that specializes in playground surfacing.

A big trend exists right now toward surfaces that provide safety ratings that are below the maximum allowable limits in the AS F1292 standards.

"Much of this has been brought about through education, and there is no doubt that buyers today are much more educated when it comes to purchasing decisions related to playground surfacing," said Jeromy Morningstar, managing director for a company that provides playground tiles and rubber safety surfacing for playgrounds, green roofs, gym flooring and more, based in Petrolia, Ontario, Canada.

Evolution of Playground Safety

Falls to the surface are the number one cause of injury on the playground, which is why it's so important that those surfaces are maintained regularly and composed of the appropriate materials to maximize safety and prevent serious injuries.

In recent years it was thought that as long as a surface passed what's called the impact attenuation test—AS F1292—it was safe and no other standards were needed.

For instance, engineered wood fiber is very common in many playgrounds and thought to be just ground-up wood. But, "Not so fast," the ASTM-F08 subcommittee on playground surfaces said. "Since some producers started grinding up raw material from waste wood like pallets, there became a concern about tramp metals, such as nails, staples and hazardous metals, such as lead, mercury and arsenic," Mrakovich said.

"And, what about accessibility? If the wood is not ground properly to a fibrous consistency, it may not knit together to form a firm, stable surface," he said.

"So, a standard specifically for engineered wood fiber was born (AS F2075), which included testing for tramp metals, hazardous metals and sieve criteria," he explained.

Now, a new standard exists specifically for loose-fill rubber, which contains a test method for tramp metals and hazardous metals, and another standard is in process for poured-in-place rubber that will include a wear test. So, standards have become more specific to different types of surfaces to prevent problems that could occur with them so playground owners can include these test methods within their purchasing requirements.

"There was a time when buyers would accept any HIC [head injury criterion] measurement as long as it was below the required 1,000," Morningstar said. "But, people now recognize that a surface tested at 975 on day one, for example, is highly unlikely to be in compliance for very long, and, perhaps, not even through its first season.

Awareness related to surfacing standards also has been helped along by the introduction of field testing.

"Field testing has changed the way people think about safety surfacing because test results on actual installed playground surfaces are now much easier to obtain," Morningstar said. "This not only provides an opportunity for parties interested in their surface's results, but it also provides a mechanism for buyers to ensure that they get what they specified before they pay for their surface."

And, "Another consequence, I suppose, is that the potential to expose unsafe surfaces is much more of a reality," Morningstar added.

Loose Fill and Unitary Surfaces

One of the innovations in playground surfaces is leaning toward a more nature-inspired look, with surface materials looking earthier in appearance.

One of the innovations in playground surfaces is leaning toward a more nature-inspired look, with surface materials looking earthier in appearance.

"Natural-looking surfaces are something that I've seen as of late. Even poured-in-place rubber and rubber tile surfaces are using earth tones to give it a more natural look," Mrakovich said.

"I think that is why engineered wood fiber (EWF) is still such a popular surface, besides the low cost. You can't get much more natural than a wood surfacing," he said.

"And, in order to incorporate this trend into the surface," he added, "some companies are combining natural surfaces and unitary (synthetic) type surfaces, such as synthetic turf and rubber products."

In fact, newer progressive trends in playground surfacing have involved unitary surfaces vs. loose-fill product lines.

"Recent developments in ADA compliance regulations require regular grooming and backfilling of loose-fill products in order to stay compliant with these new and necessary regulations. Unitary surfacing … is considered a 'fix it and forget it' option that requires very little to no maintenance on a regular basis," said Matt Malles, Mid Atlantic regional manager for a playground safety surfacing manufacturer.

The largest benefit to loose fill is the initial installation and product costs.

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

"Typically, loose fill costs about 15 to 20 percent less initially than unitary surfacing. A true comparison should include life-cycle costs associated with both surfacing options. Unitary surfacing options have a slightly higher initial cost, but have very little to no maintenance costs associated with safety and ADA compliance," Malles explained.

And, many loose fill materials are in use today, such as wood chips, pea stone, sand, bark mulch, rubber mulch and EWF.

"Loose fill surfaces, such as EWF, are generally less expensive, do not require professional installation and give greater fall height protection than unitary surfaces. The drawback is more maintenance is needed since loose surfaces are just that, loose," Mrakovich said.

"So, they tend to scatter in high-use areas and need [to be] raked and replenished periodically in order to keep them safe and accessible, which increases maintenance costs," he added.

Meanwhile, engineered wood fiber offers a number of advantages, the primary ones being cost and impact attenuation ratings. It also offers one of the lowest initial purchase costs, and provides one of the most favorable initial impact attenuation ratings when tested in laboratory conditions.

However, there are a few disadvantages, too, that should be considered.

For instance, with all loose-fill surfacing, a regular maintenance program will need to be implemented in order to preserve and maintain compliance to both AS F1292 (impact attenuation) and AS F1951 (ADA accessibility). A typical maintenance program, for example, would involve regular raking, leveling and sifting of the loose material to counter the effects of decomposition, compaction and material displacement. In the absence of a maintenance program, consistency in fall protection and wheelchair mobility can be compromised. To boot, detailed inspections will be required to detect and remove embedded objects that can be dangerous and unhealthy.

On the other hand, "Unitary surfaces, such as PIP, tiles and turf have more upfront material costs, require professional installation and do not have the same impact resiliency as loose-fill products. However, they do not require a lot of maintenance, so they are desirable for those that have limited help to maintain their playground from a safety and accessibility point-of-view," Mrakovich said.

"If it's a loose-fill surface that they are going to install themselves, get installation instructions from the vendor and follow them. Some vendors may require certain installation techniques to give better accessibility or recommend other products like wear mats to reduce maintenance," he said.

Also, make sure to check that you use the recommended thickness of the surface for the fall height required.

"Make a mark on the equipment post so you can see when the surface needs topped off. Some synthetic manufacturers may recommend an impact test every so often to make sure the surface is still impact resilient," he added. "The surface may look good on the top, but if it has begun to decay beneath the wear layer it may not be safe, and the only way to determine that is to perform a drop test. There are many playground consulting companies that offer this."

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…)."



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