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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.