New, more restrictive changes to the safety standard for playground surfaces that are intended to lessen the chance of head injuries from falls has been adopted by a key subcommittee of ASTM, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials. If formally approved by ASTM, the nonprofit international organization that sets standards for testing and materials, this new standard could have a significant impact on public playgrounds across the nation, leaving them out of compliance with the newly revised standard or resulting in as-yet unknown retrofitting costs to meet the new criteria.
NRPA has opposed adoption of these new criteria because of a lack of specific evidence of serious head injuries to children caused by falls on playground surfaces that meet the present safety standard. And even though NRPA’s arguments against changing the standard were upheld as persuasive this past spring, the subcommittee on playground surfacing voted to approve the changes to the standard before it even heard evidence from a task group that was formed to study the issue.
Of the 250,000 playground injuries annually, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates more than 40 percent result from falls. With recent public and media attention on preventing head injuries in youth sports, there has been keen interest by parents, park and recreation administrators, and advocates for play in making playgrounds safer for all children.
Changing and updating standards for materials for the purpose of providing greater safety is nothing new for ASTM. The organization has been in the business of testing and reviewing standards for materials such as steel, cement, electrical conductors, non-ferrous metals and many other types of materials and services for more than 100 years.
However, the process by which the new criteria for playground surfaces were recently approved caused a number of committee members to question both the rationale for the change and how it was adopted. Some felt the more restrictive change to the existing standard was not based on relevant data, nor was there was sufficient direct evidence of head injuries that would be cause for changing the standard that has been in place for more than 20 years.
In fact, one committee member, Jeff Mrakovich, director of surfacing products for Zeager Companies, a national manufacturer and distributor of playground surfacing, said, “We just allowed a change in criteria to a standard that has been in place for 21 years with not one reported serious head injury on a surface that met the current criteria.“
Some members of the playground surfacing subcommittee also called into question the way relevant data on playground head injuries was made available to the committee. After a review of negative votes on an earlier proposal to change the criteria, a task group was formed to evaluate the best available data. However, before the task group ever had a chance to review that information, a letter ballot was distributed to the full subcommittee, which then voted to approve the changes to the standard.
By way of background, the standard for surfaces installed under and around playground equipment is based primarily on two factors: Head Injury Criterion (HIC), which is a score for the measure of head injury severity, and g-max, a gravity-based, instrumented measurement that represents the maximum deceleration experienced at the point of impact in a fall, usually calculated in milliseconds. The recently approved change to the existing ASTM standard reduces the HIC from 1000, the level it has been since 1991, to 700. A lower HIC number and lower g-max value indicates better performance by surfaces in absorbing impact.
The implications of this new standard, F1292-14, if formally adopted, will be highly significant for public parks and recreation because the higher standard for impact attenuation may require the surfaces of many playgrounds to be replaced or upgraded, or the playgrounds to be taken out of service.
Although ASTM standards for playground surfacing materials do not constitute law or regulation in and of themselves, they may be codified within state regulations that require local adherence to the ASTM standard. No matter whether they are adopted as regulation or not, the ASTM standard for playground surfacing is influential in determining contract specifications by park and recreation agencies when deciding how shock absorbing they want their installed playground surfaces to be. The HIC score is one of the determining factors in making that decision. Agencies that contract out the installation of playground surfaces decide what HIC rating they want their playgrounds to meet, and then installers generally provide proof that their surfacing system has been tested in a lab or in the field to determine that it meets the specifications set forth in the contract.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) first issued guidelines in 1981 and has updated them regularly in the Handbook for Public Playground Safety. However, the group does not mandate what type of surface should be installed under play equipment, only that it meets certain criteria for impact attenuation. Playground surfaces range from natural materials like sand, wood chips and pea gravel to man-made materials including engineered wood fiber (EWF), rubber tiles, loose rubber mulch from recycled tires, and unitary surfaces such as poured-in-place rubber (PIP), bonded wood-fiber mats and hybrid surfaces, such as those that have an underlayment of rubber mulch packed in bags and covered by a carpet.
Impact-attenuating surfaces are designed to absorb impacts to prevent head injuries from critical fall heights. The critical fall height is a measurement above which a serious head injury might be expected occur. Impact-attenuating surfaces also protect against other types of injuries, such as long-bone fractures that are commonly associated with playground falls. Both ASTM and CPSC note that no matter what type of surface is installed and how impact-attenuating it may be, not all injuries may be prevented.
So what are the implications for public park and recreation agencies if these revisions are made to the existing standard? Ken Kutska, a playground safety expert and CPSI instructor, notes that because the current standard has been in place for so many years without change, “There is a ‘don’t want to know, don’t care’ mentality” about the HIC ratings of playground surfacing. He predicts that the new standard will cause park and recreation agencies to pay much closer attention to the HIC rating of their playground surfaces and more testing will be needed to measure performance in the field. He also notes that more information will be needed to educate the end-user on how to make the best decisions for their needs.
“The new standard may affect you and it may not,” says Elaine Sherman, the designer of a proprietary surfacing system now owned by Playworld. “It all depends on what type of equipment you have in your playgrounds, the fall heights, the type of surfaces you installed and the manufacturer’s specifications for that surfacing.”
Industry representatives and consultants attending the recent ASTM committee meetings noted that some installed surfaces might already meet or exceed the new 700 HIC standard, while others could be retrofitted without substantial costs. “Those who installed to the basic minimum,” says Rolf Huber, a Canadian playground surface expert, “will have the greatest issues with the new standard. If you just spent 50 percent of your playground budget on surfacing that is destined to fail, then you may have made a bad decision.” No matter what, say the consultants and committee members, the new standard will require careful attention to developing specifications, writing contract language and monitoring the installation to ensure that purchased surfaces meet the standard to which they were designed.
It should be emphasized that the revision to F1292-14 has not yet been formally adopted by ASTM. The recommendation for adoption must be approved by the ASTM Committee on Standards. Some members of the playground surfacing subcommittee have indicated their intention to formally object to what they viewed as irregularities in the review process for changing the impact attenuation standard.
NRPA has never objected to making playgrounds safer for kids and works continually to ensure that public playgrounds in parks and recreation are safe for all users. NRPA has led the way nationally in providing training, education, certification and awareness of playground safety. NRPA objected to the passage of these revisions to the current ASTM standard for playground surfacing on the grounds that the process by which they were approved was flawed and because there was not sufficient evidence of relevant data from playground injuries to lead to reconsideration of the present standard.
Stay tuned. More information on this developing story will be provided by NRPA in Parks & Recreation Magazine and though NRPA’s social media outlets as it becomes available.
Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.
NRPA encourages its members to keep up with the latest in safety standards, as well as take advantage of cutting-edge technology and aesthetics when it comes to playground surfacing materials. Below, find information on a variety of surfacing manufacturers.
1818 Flite Acres Rd.
Wemberly, TX 78676
3410 Midcourt Rd., Suite 108
Carrollton, TX 75006
2007 Beechgrove Place
Utica, NY 13501
10220 San Sevaine Way
Mira Loma, CA 91752
715 Fountain Ave.
Lancaster, PA 17601
1000 Buffalo Rd.
Lewisburg, PA 17837
P.O. Box 239
4393 Discovery Line
Petrolia, ON N0N 1R0
P.O. Box 157
Williamsville, NY 14231
A PlayCore Company
2414 West 12th St., Suite 5
Tempe, AZ 85281
4000 E. Harrisburg Pike
Middletown, PA 17057