How many children in Canada die each year as a result of equipment-related injuries on school and public playgrounds? The question is blunt, but important. As I have noted before, the safety standards body ASTM is right now voting on a proposal to make one of its key play equipment standards – for safety surfacing – more stringent, arguing that the risk of serious injuries and fatalities from falls in playgrounds is too high.
When such a serious proposal – which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with – is on the table, everyone deserves to know the facts. Hence this question.
I am openly addressing the question to Rolf Huber, for two reasons. First, because he is a longstanding member of the relevant ASTM committee, is well-known in the playground industry for his leading role in the standards-setting process, and has made public statements in favour of the ASTM change. Second, because he came along to my talk last night at Metro Hall in Toronto, and disputed my answer to this question.
What is my answer to this question? My answer is zero. That is right. Zero. According to Dr Mariana Brussoni of the BC Injury Prevention and Research Unit, who I met in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, there have been no such fatalities for at least the last 20 years. [Update 16 May 2015: it looks like the answer is that there were two such fatalities over the 30-year period 1982-2011 – see Mariana’s second comment below.] (Readers who have been following the safety surfacing debate may recognise Mariana as one of the authors of an article I shared here that was highly critical of ASTM’s proposal.)
What is Rolf Huber’s answer to this question? At last night’s Toronto meeting, Rolf claimed that 20 children in Canada had died on playgrounds as a result of equipment-related injuries over the last 20 years.
The gulf between his answer and mine (via Mariana) is huge: I must say I was very surprised to hear his figure. I know that some people are wary of statistics, especially on such an emotive and distressing topic. But statistics are vital in gaining a sense of the scale of the problem. And while statistics can be collected, interpreted, debated and abused, they cannot and should not be ignored. Figures on playground fatalities go to the heart of the question of whether or not playgrounds are too dangerous, and hence whether more stringent playground standards – such as those proposed by ASTM – are justified.
The gulf between Rolf’s answer and mine is also puzzling. One gruesome, tragic but – in this context – valuable fact about fatalities is there should be little dispute about them. They are not difficult to define, nor difficult to count. It is easy to monitor and study them – and to share references and sources. This is unlike serious injuries, where what counts as a serious injury is open to debate (is a long-bone fracture a serious injury or not?) and injury rates are harder to count.
This is why I am so keen to get an answer to the question. And why I hereby invite Rolf Huber to back up the statement he made last night in Toronto with references and sources.
Let me give one final clarification to my question. I am asking for statistics on fatalities from equipment-related injuries, which have happened in school and public playgrounds in Canada. I am not asking about fatalities in homes and private gardens. (CDC statistics show that in the USA, the majority of playground fatalities arise from home equipment – but there are different safety standards for these. The public policy implications are different too: with public and school playgrounds, the cost of compliance falls on taxpayers.) And I am not asking about fatalities that are unrelated to playground equipment, such as those from strangulation due to clothing, or due to ropes or similar that have been attached to equipment by users after installation. (The CDC statistics referenced above show that strangulations make up more than half of all American playground fatalities.)
Rolf – I will close by addressing you directly. I am sure that you recognise the need for transparent, open and public debate on this issue. Share the source of your claim with the Toronto audience who heard you make it last night – and with the growing numbers around the world who are following the playground safety debate. I look forward to reading your response.