It’s Time to Ban Rubber “Safety” Surfacing

Swing mats

This article first appeared in Playground Professionals 3/2/15

I find it very odd, and I suspect that you do to, that after more than two decades of allegedly improving playground safety through mandated standards we have essentially the same annual number of accidents. How can that be?

Certainly some of the standards, such those for head entrapment and entanglement, will have prevented some injuries but the types of accidents for which these were developed were always rare. The vast majority, some 85%, of injuries comes from falls. Nowadays virtually every playground has some form of safety surfacing so if this mandate was effective then we should see a significant improvement in accident rates, but we don’t.

There is a simple reason why: rubber surfacing increases injuries. How can this be so?

  1. Rubber safety surfaces do not provide sufficient attenuation

Engineered wood fiber (EWF) provides more than twice the fall attenuation of even the best mat systems. To my knowledge we do not have an analysis of fall accidents that tells us what type of surfacing was in place. Given the cost of surfacing and the importance of child safety not having such basic information is just plain appalling.

  1. Rubber safety surfaces create rebound injuries

Because of the way in which rubber deforms and then bounces back the brain hits the inside of the skull first on the down stroke and then on the rebound. Neurosurgeons tell us that the rebound damage is often much worse than the initial impact. EWF significantly increases the amount of time impacts are absorbed and have negligible rebound.

  1. Rubber safety surfaces create long bone injuries

It has long been know in the playground surfacing industry that the fall attenuation standards do not address broken arms and legs. The assumption is that if the worst-case situation, head trauma is taken care of that other, less critical injuries will also be ameliorated. Clearly this is not the case. Again without a statistical analysis comparing rates of injuries by material type it is difficult to be conclusive but it appears that both in better fall attenuation plus the ability to prolong impact forces give EWF a distinct advantage.

increased-injury-rates

The best study I have seen in this area is: Impact attenuation – The case for natural materials. This is a pretty tough read but is well researched and supports the positions presented here.

The conclusion is that any improvement in safety that EWF has been able to provide is negated by the injuries that rubber surfaces introduce.

Without well-done accident and injury data we don’t know this for a proven fact but the trends are very suggestive. Until proper science can be applied to this critical question I call for a moratorium on the use of rubber playground surfacing except in those areas where EWF becomes displaced with use, such as the bottom of swings, and for accessible routes of travel to transfer stations.

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4 thoughts on “It’s Time to Ban Rubber “Safety” Surfacing

  1. Agreed that there is no perfect playground surface.
    However, I am in Southern Ontario, Canada where compliance to the Standard’s requirements are a very high priority, and I still see that Unitary Rubber surfaces account for at best 20-25 percent of my inspections.
    Hence the blame on rubber to your statistics may be overstated.

    Furthermore, the era of playground surfaces started mainly in the 1990’s. And with today’s economy many owner-operators are sill trying to make-do with what they have, as best they can. Hence I see many loose-fill surfaces that are now simply worn out and not replaced or even maintained since first installed. Perhaps it is now those old surfaces that are also skewing your data to the negative.

    Lastly is now the significant and dominant aspect of providing ground surface accessibility. Simply put, loose-fill surfaces are NOT inclusive to all. Neither is the over-use of transfer platforms (IMO) as you elude to as an alternative.
    Note: I consider a properly compacted EWF surface as unitary as it no longer displaces an impact during a fall, it absorbs the impact much the same as rubber does.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I tend to agree with you. My main point is that we simply don’t know if rubber surfacing is increasing the rate of long bone injuries. In light of the current move to increase the standard I think we should get this information before taking such an expensive and frankly problematic step.

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  2. This is an important discussion. Let’s be sure to address the mandated accessibility of surfaces.

    EWF is only accessible when properly installed and of course, regularly inspected and frequently maintained. In the thousands of playgrounds we have seen in our work in the accessibility world, I can count on one hand the number of times the agency told me they follow the IPEMA guidance for EWF surface maintenance. First, replenish. Second rake to level. Third, water the surface. Fourth compact the surface.

    You can’t have it both ways. By that I mean an agency can’t buy and install the cheaper surface (EWF) and then figuratively turn around and walk away and not inspect and maintain the EWF surface regularly and frequently.

    Agencies that want to use EWF need maintenance on steroids or the surface will fail to comply with the ADA.

    Finally, ditto to Jim’s comment about transfer systems. They don’t work…the vast majority of kids using a mobility device either can’t use a transfer system or won’t for dignity reasons. Ramps are the only effective way, today, to make elevated play components accessible.

    Liked by 1 person

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