Play It Safe

Regular Maintenance, Testing Vital to Improving Safety

By Deborah L. Vence

Children love playgrounds for the curvy slides, crawl tubes, swings, monkey bars and more, creating a world of endless fun. But keeping the surface of a playground safe has to be a top priority.

If falls do happen, having quality surface materials in place and conducting regular upkeep of playground surfaces, can help reduce the chance of serious injuries.

"Have a plan. Maintaining surfaces, whether loose-fill or unitary, is not rocket science. The problem I see is some playground owners just don't take the time to put a schedule together to make sure they are inspecting their playgrounds on a regular basis," said Jeff Mrakovich, research and development, certification and services manager for a Middletown, Pa.-based manufacturer of recreational surfacing products.

"Sending a couple of their workers to a playground safety inspector course to learn how to inspect a playground properly can really help a maintenance supervisor since they can't be everywhere all at once. Also, ask what the manufacturer recommends on how to maintain the surface you purchased," he advised. "The manufacturer will know best on how to maintain their surface properly."

All too often, surface maintenance is neglected, yet the playground is still in use. "Surfacing is missing, landscape fabric or concrete is exposed, chunks of the unitary surface are missing and kids are playing on it unaware of the injury risk below them," said Brad A. Pittam, CPSI, senior category development manager, playgrounds, for a Carrollton, Texas-based rubber products supplier.

What's important, too, is that playground owners follow the surfacing manufacturer's instructions for maintaining the playground safety surface.

"Additionally, I would love to see daily, weekly or monthly head drop testing on every playground to make sure it is providing enough head impact protection for the fall height of the equipment," Pittam added. "It would prove the surfacing is performing as needed and help determine if maintenance or replacement is needed."

The Source of Unsafe Surfaces

As experts indicated, some of the most common causes of unsafe surfaces at playgrounds include lack of maintenance, lack of education about the particular type of surfacing that is being used, surfaces being past their useful life, insufficient surfacing or no surface at all.

"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," 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, he said, might require certain installation techniques to give better accessibility or recommend other products, like wear mats, to reduce maintenance.

"Check to be sure 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 [to be] topped off," he said.

What's more, some manufacturers of synthetic surfaces might recommend an impact test every so often in order to make sure the surface is still impact resilient. The surface might look good on the top, but if it has begun to decay beneath the wear layer, it might 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. As far as professional installation is concerned, if you consider poured-in-place, make sure they are IPEMA (International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association) certified. IPEMA offers third-party testing by an independent lab," Mrakovich said.

One of the things that buyers don't realize, too, when buying poured-in-place is that IPEMA certifies the vendor's installation crews as well as the product itself since installation is so critical with this sort of surface.

"You wouldn't think drainage would lend to a surface's safety, 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," he said. "Any amount of frozen moisture that is within the surface makes the surface less resilient and unable to provide good impact attenuation. Eliminating water from the surface will minimize this and help the surface to last longer, too."

Moreover, when installing engineered wood fiber or poured-in-place surfaces, the installer must excavate to a certain depth in order to backfill with rubber or mulch and ensure enough cushion is present.

"If corners are cut, or if the installer is not educated, there will not be enough force reduction under the play equipment and could result in injury to a child," explained Matt Malles, director of sales for a Lancaster, Pa.-based company that manufactures playground safety surfacing.

The Pros and Cons

To choose the best surface for your playground, though, it's important to know some of the pros and cons of the different types that are available.

"There is an old saying in the playground world, 'There is no such thing as the perfect playground safety surface,'" Pittam said. "Meaning, each type of surface has a disadvantage. There is, however, an acceptable surface for every budget and maintenance attitude."

Loose-fill surfaces, such as engineered wood fiber (EWF) and rubber mulch, are among the most affordable options and are readily available nationwide.

"Both require little skill to install and maintain, making them a great install-and-maintain-it-yourself surface," Pittam said.

"Unitary surfaces, such as poured-in-place and artificial turf offer reduced-maintenance advantages over the loose-fill surface options, but come at a greater cost and usually require trained specialists to install and repair them," he added. "IPEMA-certified fall heights of some unitary surfaces tend to be lower as well."

Like Pittam, Mrakovich noted that loose-fill surfaces generally are less expensive, do not require professional installation, drain well and, on average, give greater fall height protection than unitary surfaces.

"The drawback," he stressed, "is [that] more maintenance is needed since loose surfaces are just that—loose. So, they tend to scatter in high-use areas and need [to be] raked, leveled and replenished periodically in order to keep them safe and accessible, which increases maintenance costs."

Unitary surfaces have more upfront material and installation costs, require professional installation, can be extremely hot during summer months and generally 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 high budgets and limited help to maintain their playgrounds. They usually have longer warranties on materials, except in areas that are considered high use, such as swings and slide exits," he said. "Ask for warranty details before purchasing."

The primary pros to unitary surfacing—including poured-in-place, tiles and turf systems—are twofold, added Jim Dobmeier, president and founder of a Cheektowaga, N.Y.-based playground safety surface supplier.

The first is, "consistently terrific shock attenuation over the course of time (year in and year out). Because they are stationary and substantially unchanging, when a child needs the shock attenuation of the surface, it's there—every time—without the reliance on unrealistic maintenance, including leveling and replenishment, needed for loose fill," Dobmeier said.

"High-impact areas with loose fill are rarely in the condition needed to meet testing requirements at the critical times children need that shock absorption. With unitary systems, close to 100 percent of the time the surface is as needed, when needed," he said.

The second pro is that, "unitary surfaces offer fantastic aesthetics that complement the playground equipment and the playground setting. Playgrounds with unitary surfacing are more frequented because children prefer playing on them," he said.

Malles said the pros of loose-fill EWF or rubber mulch is the low cost and vast distribution model, while the cons involve having to groom it and backfill as needed.

"Poured-in-place surfacing pros are that it is aesthetically pleasing and has the ability to incorporate creative designs and is ADA-compliant," Malles said. "Cons are that it is the highest cost of any playground surface and typically only has a life cycle of three to five years. It is also 100 percent manufactured on-site during installation, so the compliant depth and mix rate is variable to the environment it's being made in, as well as the installer who is involved (i.e., difficult quality control)."

Meanwhile, the pros of playground tile surfacing include ease of installation, endless design possibilities, ADA compliance, interlocking/floating installation methods, freeze-thaw compliance and longer life cycles.

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."

Cost and Selection

Determining the best type of surface material should involve the total package—safe, accessible, affordable and available.

Looking at the safe factor, Mrakovich recommended asking the manufacturer for recent impact test results and if they have any test results from an actual installation out in the field.

"Are the numbers on the edge of failing, or is there plenty of room in case of harsh weather, which could affect the resiliency of the surface?" he said.

"If using EWF ask for test results that check for sieve analysis, tramp metals like nails and staples and hazardous metals like lead, mercury and arsenic," he suggested.

For ease of access, obtain a recent test result showing it passes for accessibility, but also see if the vendor has any installation instructions or maintenance recommendations to keep their surface accessible.

"When it comes to affordability, look at all angles. Can I afford it upfront without blowing up my budget as well as can I afford to maintain it so I have a safe, accessible surfacing?" he added.

For availability, Mrakovich suggested keeping in mind a couple of things: Will you have the support available when you need it, and will the vendor be there when you need to know how to get the most out of your purchase or when there is a warranty issue?

"Most playground owners don't have the time to chase down a vendor and then get the runaround when it comes to questions and answers to the product they purchased," he said. "They want their vendor or manufacturer available when something pops up."

Pittam said the three key elements of any surface are: IPEMA-certified fall height provided by the system, required maintenance to maximize performance, and price. "It's almost like buying running shoes," Pittam said. "You don't buy running shoes for their looks. You buy them for how they will help you run.

"Aesthetics often play a role in the purchase decision process, but ultimately, the surface is there to prevent critical brain injuries. If it looks good while doing that, great. But it is the last stop in preventing injuries should a child fall," he added. "Playground owners need to consider the best system they can afford that offers sufficient head impact protection for the equipment with a maintenance requirement that they can provide."

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