ASTM’s proposal to tighten up impact absorbency standards for playground surfacing has been defeated. The proposal did not receive enough support from members of the relevant committee even to be considered at its meeting in California last week. It has been widely criticized here and elsewhere, including in this article by leading Canadian accident prevention experts. This is a major victory for those opposed to the proposal. It shows that a growing proportion of ASTM committee members now disagree with it. Remember that last year, the proposal came close to being adopted. It was only stopped after the committee’s procedures were reviewed by an overarching ASTM committee.
However, this is not the end of the story. ASTM committee members tell me that supporters of the proposal have said they plan to bring it back for another vote. There are already discussions about recruiting new committee members to influence the vote.
This raises serious questions about the legitimacy of ASTM’s standard-setting process. It is clear that the process of reviewing playground safety standards is open to influence by people with a direct commercial interest. Indeed there are ASTM committee members with commercial interests on both sides of this debate.
This only underlines the need for a broad, impartial, transparent review of the type that I – and many others – have been calling for repeatedly over recent months. It also adds to the case for reform of the whole playground standard-setting process (a topic that my long-term collaborator Bernard Spiegal has recently explored).
The case for a pause is strengthened by news of two key developments in North America. First, the American Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) – a federal agency – is apparently planning to carry out a study of the condition of US playgrounds. Meanwhile in Canada, a broad coalition of national organisations is about to go public on a high-profile position statement on outdoor play, along with several systematic literature reviews. These are likely to kick-start exactly the kind of wider debate that is both needed and helpful. It would be particularly short-sighted for ASTM to push for revisions before CPSC’s study has even begun, let alone been completed.
Having just come back from a coast-to-coast speaking tour of Canada, it is crystal clear to me that there is a groundswell of opinion in favour of a more thoughtful, balanced approach to playground safety. Indeed appetite is growing for a much wider debate on risk in childhood.
The time is also surely right for public health and consumer safety agencies such as CPSC – and also CDC and Health Canada – to make public their views on the topic. They may wish to take note of a decision taken here in the UK by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – our equivalent to Health Canada. Back in 2010 it ruled out publishing new guidance on child accident prevention in play and leisure contexts back in 2010, because of “a lack of effectiveness evidence, the low numbers of serious injuries and deaths during outdoor play and leisure, and concerns that standalone guidance might encourage unwarranted risk aversion (with negative consequences for physical activity and play)” [quote taken from an email to me from Prof Mike Kelly, then director of NICE’s Centre for Public Health Excellence].
Overall, the case for a pause and wider review on playground safety standards is now compelling. One more thing is clear. If ASTM simply allows the proposal to return for another vote, it not only ignores the growing concern and debate on this topic. It also risks bringing its own procedures into disrepute.