CAN WE ELIMINATE SERIOUS INJURIES THROUGH LEGISLATION? Part 2, Step 1 – International Standards Embracing Playground Surfacing Compliance Test Method

CAN WE ELIMINATE SERIOUS INJURIES THROUGH LEGISLATION? Part 2
Step 1 – International Standards Embracing Playground Surfacing Compliance Test Method
By Kenneth S Kutska, Executive Director
International Playground Safety Institute, LLC
October 23, 2013

In Part 2, I will discuss whether the laboratory test is even needed and should there be mandatory compliance field test requirement after installation and then consider follow-up testing at some reasonable interval thereafter.

I would like to go back to my participation in the TUV Austria Conference in Vienna October 23, 2013. Not every participant was of the same opinion on how the EN1177 standard should be revised. Some of the participants thought there was no improvement needed to the current playground surfacing standards. Some suggested there was no need to make impact attenuation requirements more restrictive. To paraphrase what I heard during the meeting was the existing requirements go too far in trying to protect children from themselves. The overall impact of well-intended adults recommending improvements to this existing surfacing standard are taking away a child’s opportunity to develop risk assessment and problem solving skills that evolve when children encounter challenging play events. This would be problematic for those following the CPSC Handbook and/or ASTM F1487 when considering requirements for a three dimensional net climber whose fall height might go far beyond the EN1177 – 3 meter (10 feet) maximum fall height. The individual went on to say the element of fear is important and brings about a different kind of play and learning experience.

While we might all see the importance of this point of view a compliant surface system which absorbs most of the energy of the falling child is a better approach rather than the child’s body absorbing most of the energy. I think we can all agree most children are very capable of using these kinds of play components without falling to the surface. In Europe, these large climbing nets have been around more than thirty years. These climbing net manufacturers state there is little or no injury data on falls from these climbing nets and this may very well be the result of the above discussion of how fear and risk assessment by children can change the way they play. We might also expect similar injury free results for most fit, agile, and athletic children, but what about those who may not possess those traits at this moment of their life. We are all unique individuals. We each develop at our own pace. Most of us were not fortunate enough to become the biggest, strongest, and smartest of our peers. Never the less, every one of us deserves the opportunity to experience the developmental benefits of play. So what would you do or say or do if your child was one, of the unfortunate few, who fell onto the playground surface and suffered some serious head injury?

Playground surface system performance can be compared to a seatbelt in your car. How many of us ever use them? We must buckle up whenever we drive but most of us never have an accident that would require the use of the safety belt or the car’s airbags. Both of these passive safety systems are there to protect us from the probability of suffering a life threatening or permanently debilitating injury if we are involved in an automobile accident. If we put this passive safety system concept into practice within the public playground environment the manufacturer and owner/operator should expect children to interact with challenging play equipment in unintended ways. Children continue to experiment outside their known; physical, emotional, social and cognitive capabilities and sometimes the child is not successful in completing a task. It is not reasonable to expect 100% success when a child undertakes a challenging activity. Some rate of failure is inevitable and some failure should be acceptable as part of child development as long as the resulting consequences remain within the limits of a societal norm. What is the acceptable severity of injury we are all willing to accept in our safety standards scoping statements? Once this question is answered we should be able to better evaluate the performance of the play equipment and the impact attenuating surface system under and around the play equipment where falls off the play equipment are likely to occur..

This seemed to be THE question of the entire week during the November ASTM Committee meetings in Jacksonville Florida. Falls continue to be the number one cause of injuries on public playgrounds and this fact has not changed ever since the CPSC began gathering and analyzing injury data.

If we are ever going to make some progress in reducing the frequency and severity of fall related injuries we need to define, to some measurable degree, the type and severity of these types of injuries. The ASTM standards groups are in the process of taking this next step. Regardless of where we are in ASTM F1487, changes to the surfacing F1292 performance requirements will potentially have the biggest impact on reducing frequency and severity of serious fall related injuries. Unfortunately the scope of the ASTM F1487 standard does not appear to address the severity of injuries currently identified within the scope of both ASTM F1487 and F1292 standards. More cooperation between these two ASTM Subcommittees and CPSC will be necessary if we can ever hope to make any substantial reduction in serious injury reduction.

Next month I will discuss some of the challenges facing our industry as we further evaluate the current level of performance the impact attenuating surface system standard provides and how these performance thresholds translate to a level of injury these standards currently address.

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