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Methods of Impact Attenuation & Types of Fall Safety Surfacing

Playground safety surfaces and fall safety

There are a number of playground safety surfaces, all of which carry different levels of fall height safety, functional characteristics, initial and ongoing maintenance requirements & costs, lifespans, as well as certain pros and cons. The purpose and goal here is to provide a basic overview of the methods of impact absorption and each type of safety surface, while certain specific products may have slightly different attributes.

The animated graphic diagrams accessible below within the Methods of Impact Attenuation... section provide for most people a much easier way to understand what happens during playground fall testing of different types of safety surfaces, as well as how they commonly react during real-life playground fall situations, and how the particulate size can play a significant role in the actual fall safety and reduction of serious injuries.

NOTE: Simply click on the name of the Method, Animated Diagrams or Type of Surface to expand for more detailed information. Clicking again will compress it.

Methods of impact absorption for playground fall safety surfaces

In general, there are two primary methods of impact absorption, or attenutation, and each playground safety surface provides one or both methods, in varying degrees. The elements of kinetic energy involved during impact attenuation include the size of impact area, the force and duration of impact. The force depends on the weight of the item impacting the area, as well as the speed, which accelerates and increases based on the fall height (duration of time falling). The duration of impact is determined more by the surfacing material and method of impact attenuation, whether dispersion, compression, or a combination of both.

Click on the Impact Attenuation Method below to expand it for more detailed information. Clicking on it again will compress it.

Dispersion: These are commonly loose-fill surfaces such as sand or pea gravel, which are not comprised of rubber, wood chips or Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF).

Compression: These types of surfaces are normally referred to as unitary or monolithic surfaces, which include Poured-In-Place (PIP), playground mats and tiles, and more recently synthetic turf with a padding layer underneath it.

Combined Dispersion & Compression: These types of surfacing products commonly include recycled rubber mulch, wood chips and Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF) products.

Fall Impact Animated Diagrams: There are well defined testing parameters under ASTM F1292 Standards for playground fall safety testing, where a projectile is dropped from a specified height onto the safety surface being tested and data collected from the equipment inside the projectile. This test can be performed on-site at a playground and manufacturers typically conduct independent laboratory tests over a series of three drops at each of three different temperature ranges on a small sample supplied by the manufacturer.

Click on "Fall Impact Animated Diagrams" above to expand and view the animations.


Types of playground safety surfaces

Perhaps the most important element during the selection of a proper playground safety surface, is making sure the product meets or exceeds your maximum fall height requirements and the manufacturer provides a qualified report for ASTM F1292-09 or F1292-13 testing with all applicable test data (Head Injury Criteria and G-max. scores) for all three test drops, over all temperature ranges and fall heights tested. In addition, all product manufacturers should provide installation and maintenance recommendations, which always need to be followed. If this information cannot be provided, it may be best to not consider using that particular product for your specific application.

Every customer should know, up front, the level of fall safety provided, all applicable installation and maintenance requirements & costs, as well as life expectancy and expected deterioration of fall safety provided over its lifespan. That way, a customer may fully consider all applicable data and make a fully educated buying decision.

Click on the Type of Playground Surfacing to expand it for more detailed information, and click it again to compress it.

Unitary or Monolithic Surfaces: These types of surfaces are usually the most dangerous and most costly surfacing to install and maintain. Click on the Type of Playground Surfacing below to expand it for more detailed information.

  • Poured-In-Place (PIP): Easily one of the most costly surfaces initially and can be negatively affected by temperature, over time it often gets more expensive, pretty unsanitary, less effective, and in many cases downright dangerous for higher fall heights later in it's lifespan.
  • Playground Mats and Tiles: Similar to PIP, but comes in rolls or tiles which can be affixed into position.
  • Synthetic Turf with Padding: Perhaps the most expensive option, over time, that really doesn't provide good fall height protection.

Loose-Fill Surfaces: These have been recognized as providing the best fall height protection, although they vary quite a bit when it comes to respective levels of fall safety, longevity, installation and ongoing maintenance costs.
Click on the Type of Playground Surfacing to expand it for more detailed information.

  • Playground Sand: A lot of people like playgrounds with sand in them, although it's not really as safe as people think it is when it comes to playground fall height injury protection and other dangers which commonly exist within it.
  • Pea Gravel: Pea gravel used to be an acceptable type of playground safety surface, but no longer.
  • Wood Chips or EWF: Wood chips or Engineered Wood Fiber is another common playground safety surface, but it usually doesn't even provide safety as good as sand, at greater expense, and it often deteriorates rapidly with a high rate of attrition due to wind and rain (or runoff).
  • Recycled Rubber Mulch: Commonly regarded as the safest and longest lasting playground fall safety surfacing. It costs far less than other products over it's lifespan, providing the highest level of fall height protection over a much longer lifespan, without the rapid deterioration in fall safety or high maintenance requirements common in many other surfaces.


Playground fall safety surfacing selection recommendations

All manufacturers of playground fall safety surfacing products would love to say their product(s) provide the best playground fall safety, but they all can't. The only way anyone has to determine if they're safe or not for a specific application is to compare data from uniform testing for all products being considered. Make sure the lab tests were performed under the applicable standards of ASTM F1292-09 or F1292-13 at an IPEMA approved testing lab and, all data is included for all three drops, over each of three temperature ranges, hopefully at three different fall heights, with all applicable HIC and G-max. scores for every drop being shown.

If any manufacturer of IPEMA approved playground safety surfacing is not willing to provide you the full and complete test data and information you need to make a proper comparison and assessment, then that manufacturer may be trying to hide something not too favorable about their product fall safety testing. When you encounter this, it may be best to remove such products from your consideration.

NOTE: The revision year within ASTM standards are designated in the two numeric digits following the hyphen after the ASTM numbered standard. What changed significantly between the 2004 and 2009 revisions of ASTM F1292 were minor in the number of words, but the effect was a more stringent and accurate wording of the testing standards which defined certain testing procedures as mandatory or required, where they were merely recommended & suggested previously, which had left them open to potential variations in interpretation and therefore could result in inconsistent and inaccurate test data from various testing labs.

Know the age range of the children who will be playing on the playset being considered, make sure the playset is manufactured for the same age range, and all applicable safety use zones, surfacing installation depths and maintenance requirements are budgeted for, established and maintained. Know what the real HIC score is where it is likely a child suffers permanent injury or death (390 HIC for ages 1-3, 570 HIC for ages 4 & 5, and 700 HIC for ages 6 through adult), so that you can select a safety surface which provides impact attenuation at numbers lower than these thresholds for the maximum fall height of your specific play structure and age range of child(ren) intended to be using the playground.

Find out and know up front about: a) the costs associated with not only the proper initial installation of the safety surfacing; but also, b) the recommended maintenance, frequency and associated costs; c) whether there is any impact attenuation deterioration over different temperature ranges or over time; as well as, d) the life expectancy and what is involved in removing and replacing the safety surfacing at the end of that functional lifespan.

This way, you can rest easier knowing you properly researched and utilized all available information to make a truly educated decision, instead of merely going with something that someone recommends, whether or not it's really going to provide you the fall safety you really require. From there, it's important to plan and budget for proper maintenance and replacement in accordance with the manufacturer recommendations to insure it always provides that same level of injury protection or better.



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