The benefits of outdoor play for children are outweighed by the risk of injury, but playground safety relies on detailed injury surveillance and the reporting of injuries to authorities, say authors of a Perspective piece published today by the Medical Journal of Australia.
Author Dr Lisa Sharwood, injury epidemiologist from the University of Sydney and Australian Standards said: “Children need to engage in outdoor free play – ideally with a low risk to hazard ratio.
“While everyone wants to avoid serious injuries, it is impossible to prevent all injuries, which are inherent in play. Further, safety standards alone are not enough to prevent injuries, so robust injury surveillance and data analysis are required to guide risk minimisation strategies.
“Everybody shares responsibility for playground safety—supervising carers have an important role, as do play equipment manufacturers, design engineers, Australian standards developers and compliance assessors.”
Dr Sharwood and her colleagues wrote that the recently-closed giant tube slide in a north-western Sydney playground that caused a spate of injuries among adults and children, was a case in point.
With injuries described as ‘horrific’, the media questioned how the 30m long, 14m tall slide passed safety rules.
“The ‘safety rules’ referred to in the media are set out in the Australian standard for playground safety (AS 4685 series — playground equipment and surfacing),” said Dr Sharwood.
“The publisher, Standards Australia, is a not-for-profit organisation that develops voluntary Australian standards through the formation of expert technical committees.
“When the standard was written, it is unclear whether a 30m long, 14m tall tube slide was in the minds of the technical committee. Long, totally enclosed tube slides expose the user to psychological effects such as impaired speed perception and dynamic biomechanical movements, creating an out-of-control sensation similar to that in an amusement park ride.
“Slide design to separate children of different ages does not necessarily separate the users and decrease the risk.
“We propose that Australia have a standard for adventure playgrounds that requires ‘adventure rides’ such as giant slides to have supervision during open hours (similar to water park waterslides), with controlled dispatch of patrons to prevent risks related to multiple use, inappropriate attire or age-inappropriate use.
“Such a standard could fill the gap between AS 4685 (playground equipment and surfacing series) and AS 3533 (amusement rides and device series).”
Dr Ruth Barker, director of the Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit said: “Injury surveillance data are only mandated in Victoria as part of the Emergency Minimum Dataset collated by the Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit.
“This provides a brief textual description as well as coded field options including location type, injury mechanism and activity at the time of injury, and allows more meaningful state wide surveillance of injury trends due to different products or activities.
“Mandating injury reporting standards nationally with a rigorous process to independently review their application would enhance accountability under the current system.”
Dr Sharwood added: “Monitoring any standard’s efficacy is not possible without precise, detailed incident data to assist in determining whether the standard has been implemented correctly and is preventing injuries as was intended when it was written.
“Injury surveillance data allow monitoring of the overall pattern of injury but lack specific detail.
“Ideally, the Victorian model should be replicated nationally, to inform injury researchers of emerging hazards.
“To better inform public safety strategies, we encourage doctors and parents to report detailed circumstances of avoidable injuries to relevant authorities.”
“With evidence of steady decline in children’s time spent in outdoor free play over recent generations and the rise of screen-based activities and obesity levels, we must continue to encourage active involvement in outdoor free play. But it needs to be safe.”
The Perspective was written by Dr Lisa Sharwood from University of Sydney, Dr Ruth Barker from the Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit and Associate Professor David Eager from UTS and Standards Australia.