What is the future of Playground Surfacing Requirements?

What is the future of Playground Surfacing Requirements?By Kenneth S Kutska, CPSI, Executive Director
International Playground Safety Institute, LLC
September 2013

Where is the playground surfacing industry going in the near term? I wish I could give you a definitive answer. I will attempt to enlighten you but what I will not do is give you the answer you all need. It is time to roll up your sleeves and do some good old fashion homework. There is no excuse for not being informed on the many variables that impact your purchasing decisions. Yes it might make sense to hire a consultant however buyer beware. When it comes to listening to what you are being told or what you read in marketing literature always consider the information and source with an open and inquisitive mind. One bit of good advice I received from a friend as my son was starting to become a bit more social and wanted to go to a friend’s house for a sleepover was to, “trust but verify.”

I continue to get questions from CPSIs and others who want to know what surface system they should be specifying for their playgrounds. I appreciate the fact that we are all very busy and would appreciate some help from the industry experts. I too did the same when I was responsible for all of playground related tasks for my agency. I realized early on there was not an adequate comprehensive source of information in one place nor were there enough well informed people within the industry to get the quick answer we all desire. This was understandable for two reasons. Everyone is trying to sell their own surface system and private consultants want to be paid to do your homework and make an appropriate recommendation for a surface system that best fits your budget and performance requirements. Where do these consultants get their information? I realized back in the day they get most of their information from many of the same sources I was using. I, like many of you, was paying the cost to educate my consultant. A lot has changed over the past 30 years. There are many new products available in the marketplace and many more industry performance standards for play area surface systems. When I started out in the field of Park and Recreation Management there was no Google Search. There was no Internet or cell phone. Things were not as bad is it appears. We did have indoor plumbing, electricity and the telephone. We found answers to most of our problems through word of mouth and experimentation. This is not the way things are done today. Google it and you get all kinds of things to read most of which are put out by the surfacing companies and their marketing staff who are trying to sell you their products. Most of this information will point out all the positives of their surface systems. Unfortunately there is no consumer report on the subject. You will not find a complete report with a side by side comparison of all the positives and negatives of each system available in the marketplace. Regardless of all the good, and sometimes bad, information available through the Internet the question everyone should be asking is, “What performance requirements must be adhered to for my surface system to meet the current industry recommendations for a compliant system and how long should it last?”

It is time for everyone involved in managing public playgrounds to do their homework and become knowledgeable in everything necessary to select the appropriate impact attenuating surface system for their situation. This includes everything related to proper installation, maintenance and repair throughout the system’s life. There is no excuse for not knowing what resources are required to maintain a compliant impact attenuating surface within the play equipment use zone. Knowing this information is only half of the battle. Knowing what resources you have at your disposal to successfully manage the surfacing throughout its life will help you apply this knowledge to achieve the best outcome. This is where making good decisions becomes a bit more involved. Accessibility requirements for firmness and stability tend to steer our choices towards unitary systems. There are so many new unitary and composite hybrid surface systems it is becoming very difficult to keep up with the surfacing industry. Then how do you compare these new systems to one another when looking at initial cost versus long term maintenance and projected life expectancy. Most of these systems have not been in place for more than a few years at best. Loose fill systems like Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF) and loose rubber are still popular and provide excellent impact attenuation but issues related to accessibility and the ongoing frequency of maintenance of these systems pose the biggest challenge for most public play areas owners.
Still the number one consideration guiding our purchasing decision should be to provide the most impact attenuation possible while meeting all our other unique issues each play area presents. Too many owners and their consultants are focused on meeting the minimum industry performance requirements without understanding the future challenges of meeting these requirements throughout the life of the playground. What kind of warranty is available for each of these surface systems? Do these warranties have any limitations? I doubt most people have taken the time to read these warranty statements and what your responsibilities will be to remove and replace a system that fails within the warranty time limits. What is more troubling to me is how many people defer their decision to their consultant for what surfacing system to specify. Many owners give little or no guidance for what performance requirements you expect. I see this scenario repeating itself time and time again with very unpleasant outcomes 3 to 5 years down the road. Now it is too late. Everyone is upset and the owner is the one left to deal with the issues at hand. If this has happened to you I suggest you look in the mirror to find the person responsible. Nobody should relinquish their responsibility to someone else for choosing the best most appropriate surface system for their play areas. I would start with defining and specifying impact attenuation performance?

Social media groups, such as one I belong to in LinkedIn, have been debating the positive and negative impact of playground performance standards. Where we are headed in the near future is unknown but one fact remains. The number one cause of injuries on public playgrounds is falls to the playground surface within the use zone. The numbers have not changed over the past twenty years and if anything the may have even increased. One thing that has remained constant over the past twenty plus years is the impact attenuation performance requirements found in every international playground standard. The current debate going on is whether or not these performance thresholds meet the current scope of our standards which are looking for a reduction of serious injuries and death on our children’s play spaces. This discussion always seems to bring us back to my previous rants on the benefits of risk and challenge versus foreseeable misuse. Then you add the question of how much can society expend on our public playgrounds when it comes to providing a reasonable safe environment that still meets the developmental needs of children at play as compared to other causes of serious injuries and death to children. This discussion is for another day.

I am not going there again. Today I am suggesting something that hopefully will make the best use of our limited resources. I would like to see each of us responsible for selecting playground surfacing incorporate something that improves your purchasing decisions while extending the life of a compliant surface. This step should reduce the frequency and severity of playground injuries. My suggestion is to specify the fall height and performance requirements for HIC and Gmax at something less than the current ASTM F1292 thresholds. It is your responsibility and right, as owner, to specify your own minimum performance requirements to pre-qualify any surface systems for further purchase consideration.

I think the ongoing industry discussions on surfacing and performance requirements are beginning to get somewhere. These discussions allow all interested parties and each special interest to make their argument and challenge other points of view. This is not just a USA issue. Australia, various members of the European Union, and Canada all have been commenting on whether or not we need better surfacing standard performance requirements. There is a lot more to be learned as these discussions and debate play out in the ASTM, CSA, AZ, and EN standards groups.
Raising the bar for performance by lowering the impact attenuation thresholds below 100 HIC and 200g is part of the solution. The is another discussion going on as to whether there should be industry requirements for post installation compliance drop testing to certify compliance to whatever the requirements may be. I am starting to see government organizations and some more enlightened municipal entities moving the surface system industry towards compliance testing. This kind of compliance testing protects everyone’s interests including children’s safety and the taxpayer’s capital investment.
I am not sure this will occur on its own without some legislative action. Based on the current stated objectives for injury prevention of Health Canada and US CPSC I could see both making field testing a requirement for some government entities. Currently there is not the will for such a move. Many would dread the day this occurs but I would rather see this then ongoing recalls of equipment because of a few broken bones when children are just being children. Many of these broken bones result when a child falls and attempts to avoid hitting their head by breaking their fall with their hands and arms. Many occur solely by chance as a result of how a child happens to land while running across the playground surface or falling from a very low height of the surface.
Risk and challenge are most important to a successful play area. That being said I agree with those who think annual field drop testing might be a step in the right direction but this might be bit much in all situations. I believe there is room for some reasonable compromise for the frequency of such testing based on the previous drop test performance results. Maybe once a surface begins to reach the upper limits of acceptance it should require annual testing but when a surface performs at no more than 50% of the current threshold maximums it might only warrant testing every three years. I believe many broken bones are a result of falls to non-compliant surfaces but we will never know for sure without testing after the injury.
Rolf Huber, Canadian Playground Advisory, Inc., makes one of the most compelling twelve point arguments for a change from the status quo. Mr. Huber says,
“The need for Playground Surface Testing is very simple to understand.

1. Playground injuries are 60 to 75% falls to the surface worldwide and depending upon which study one looks at.

2. 200 Gmax was determined back in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and even today as being the 50% threshold for skull fracture and death in animal and cadaver studies.

3. 1000 SI (Gadd Severity Index) was determined in the 1970s as being the 50% survival threshold for head injuries in simulated automobile accidents.

4. The HIC (Head Injury Criteria) is generally 20% lower than the SI for the same data with a 10ms pulse and therefore 1000 HIC would set a threshold for HIC as 800 HIC.

5. Prasad and Mertz in the presentation of the USA to the ISO automobile standards in 1985 submitted data that 1000 HIC is a 15% risk of AIS (abbreviated injury score) >4 (life-threatening with survival probable, but a mortality rate of 10-12%

6. In 2000 the US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and Transport Canada revised downward the HIC threshold for automobiles from 1000 to 700 for all person over the age of 6 and 570 children under 6. This is still a 5% risk of AIS>4.

7. NFL study provides of 30 concussions that took players out of the game showed Gmax values of 98 and HIC of 381 for what is considered to be a “serious head injury”.

8. 2008 Cen publishes En1176 to “prevent accidents with a disabling or fatal consequence” and sets swing impact for single users to 50g and 120g for multiple users

9. In 2011 CEN published the CEN/TR 16148, Head and neck impact, burn and noise criteria, which stated that 1000 HIC has a 10-15% probability of death.

10. In 2011 ASTM publishes ASTM F1487-11 and swing impact is set to a maximum of 100 Gmax and 500 HIC and injuries related to swings are less than 3% in the USA.

11. Since the thresholds for the testing in the laboratory or the field are above a 10% probability of death, all surfaces should be tested within 10-40 days following installation and no payments should be made until the testing is completed and confirmed. Testing should be a minimum of every 2 years provided the Gmax or HIC at the previous testing was less than half the required Gmax or HIC. Gmax or HIC greater than 50% would require annual testing.

12. Surfaces and primarily synthetic surfacing should have a warranty for the maintained surface for compliance to the relevant standard for minimum of 5-8 years.”

There are many weighing in on the argument for mandatory testing. Most cite testing as being too costly and therefore this additional cost will reduce play opportunities for children. One expert in the United Kingdom argued the cost is too much for the benefits to society as many more children are seriously injured as pedestrians. A better use of these injury prevention funds would be to spend them on improving pedestrian safety. It was estimated the cost to conduct annual drop testing on all 30,000 UK public school playgrounds could be as much as $30,000,000. One Canadian playground inspector who conducts annual mandatory inspections of all childcare facilities by law stated he was ready to move to the UK and start an inspection service. He explained he was getting only a fraction of the UK estimated drop test cost in Canada. His point being if testing became mandatory there would be more people doing the testing and costs would come down. Besides the initial cost of the testing equipment, travel and mobilization adds a great deal to the bottom line cost for surface testing. Supply and demand should have a significant impact on reducing costs to public playground owners to something more manageable.
There are also those who argue there are not significant numbers of serious injuries or deaths as a result of falls to the playground surface. They also make the point that there is no proof lowering impact thresholds in playground surface standards will result in a significant reduction of injury frequency or severity. There is research emerging that refutes this claim.

This debate continues to bring to light research and professional papers from various disciplines supporting the position for some form of mandatory compliance drop testing and/or a reduction in current playground surfacing standards minimum acceptable impact attenuation thresholds.
What path to injury prevention and compliance will the playground industry follow?

Status quo, lowering HIC and Gmax values by standards organizations or owner’s purchasing specifications, or mandatory post installation surface testing requirements for every playground coupled with some requirement for testing at some frequency throughout the life of the playground until the system fails. When failure occurs, industry standards require the owner take the playground out of service until the surface system is brought back into compliance.
What do you choose to do?

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