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Children's Playground Fall Safety: What You Don't Know Can Hurt Them
(Updated with Comments Below)

By Michael Baldwin, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, EcoGreen Environmental, LLC

"Most certified playground inspectors admit they don't feel a lot of the playground safety surfaces commonly sold as 'safe' are truly safe," says Michael Baldwin of EcoGreen Environmental. In addition, many playground surfaces are not properly maintained, he says.
Editor's note: The images herein are only for illustrative purposes of various playground surfacings, not indicative of which surfacing is "better."

People are shocked when they learn that many of the parks in the U.S. have playground safety surfaces that are not safe, or can cause disease on top of injury. Most playground surfaces aren't maintained properly, so
they lack the appropriate safety, even if they were installed properly.

Many often say, "Hey, when we were kids, we played on dirt, grass, even concrete and asphalt...and we survived."

While that may be true, facts don't lie. Since the creation of Safe Kids (1988), a global network of organizations dedicated to preventing accidental childhood injuries, their efforts have helped reduce fatal accidents by 45 percent in the United States alone. However, another Safe Kids report states that the public playground injury rate among children ages five and under doubled from 1980 to 2000. The more recent 2007 Safe Kids report shared that there was an increase of 21 percent in fall-related deaths for children in the United States from 2000-2004.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) publishes their Public Playground Safety Handbook (pub 325), which plays a big role in ASTM safety testing standards such as F1292, the standard specification for impact attenuation of surfacing within the use zone of playground equipment. Most people are unaware that there have been multiple revisions of pub 325 and ASTM F1292, with the most recent versions being the only acceptable and reliably proven resources.

There are some arguably fundamental flaws regarding the data used for establishing playground safety standards, testing parameters and equipment. Most of what we know about playground impact safety comes from automotive industry testing that uses cadavers and volunteers. Most certified playground inspectors admit they don't feel many playground safety surfaces commonly sold as "safe" are truly safe for the playgrounds they are installed in.

The Canadian Association of Playground Practitioners concludes that even at the maximum acceptable safety standards of 1,000 HIC (head injury criterion) for ASTM F1292-09, a two percent probability of fatal injury exists and an eight percent likelihood of critical injury. HIC scores are the most important fundamental in selecting safety surfacing.

The Canadian Association of Playground Practitioners (CAPP) concluded that even at the maximum acceptable safety standards of 1,000 HIC (Head Injury Criterion) for ASTM F1292-09, a two percent probability of fatal injury exists, 8 percent likelihood of critical injury, and 90 percent chance of moderate injury. The curve changes rapidly for scores in the range of 750 HIC, where fatalities are unlikely, critical injury probabilities drop by 50 percent, and moderate injuries are 22 percent lower. At 500 HIC, critical injury rates are reduced another 50 percent, moderate injuries drop another 43 percent. Therefore, HIC scores should be considered more carefully.

Many feel somewhere between 900 and 1,000 HIC is a more realistic maximum acceptable score for true playground fall safety, and the CPSC recommends in its most current issue of pub 325 that the HIC scores are the most important thing to look for in choosing a playground safety surface. There's a major problem here, though, as most current playground safety surfaces were tested using the older standards. And although these standards have since been revised (because they were not acceptable), the playgrounds have not been updated to match the new safety requirements.

Part of the problem relates to the reduction of testing labs. There is currently one testing lab in North America. There used to be quite a few testing labs before the 2009 revision, which made things mandatory rather than merely suggested or recommended, changing terms like "may," "can," "should," "could," "might," to "shall," "needs to"
and "required."

As playground safety continues to be a problem, and a complex one, this discussion will continue in a future issue. In that issue we will compare different types of playground surfaces, their relative safety, maintenance requirements, initial and ongoing costs, and longevity.

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November 19, 2019, 11:26 pm PDT

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