5 Everyday Safety Risks at School (And How Design Can Help Solve Them)
Administrators and parents alike are inundated with news of sad or terrifying behavior-related incidents that occur on school grounds. Bullying, harassment, custody issues, and active shooters are real concerns that can be mitigated through both design solutions and protocol. But design can also mitigate the risk of common accidents that occur on school property in areas like Parking Lots & Drives, Science Labs & Maker Spaces, Playgrounds, Athletic Fields, Special Education Classrooms.
This final article in our series will address athletic fields. Catch up on the other articles in our series: Parking Lot Safety, Science Lab Safety, Playground Safety, and Special Education Classroom Safety.
Risk 5: Athletic Field Safety
Matt Heidloff, Landscape Architect
A 2015 report by the Concussion Legacy Foundation found that 1 in 5 concussions in high school players are caused by surface impact.1 Playing on a properly designed and maintained field can mitigate some risk of player injury. Understanding performance characteristics and maintenance requirements of different playing surfaces can help inform decision making in this process.
Selecting the right athletic playing surface will depend a lot on the sport, the climate, the coaching staff, and community preference. A well-maintained natural grass field can be considered “soft,” with a high level of shock attenuation. This type of field serves as the baseline against which all synthetic turf fields are measured. While natural grass fields can be safer for player to surface impact, their quality can fluctuate greatly depending on how well it is maintained and the time of year. In colder weather, the ground can become dangerously hard when compacted or frozen.
Synthetic turf fields provide a consistent playing experience. Their playing conditions don’t experience the same fluctuations from week to week or season to season like natural grass fields can. They also have a very good level of shock attenuation.
One drawback is that synthetic turf can get really hot. This is primarily due to the plastic fibers of the grass, rather than the rubber infill. Some manufacturers’ products use an infill that have a cooling effect, but turf surface temperatures can still reach very hot temperatures, especially in warmer climates during the summer months. Spraying these fields with water will grant a reprieve from the heat, but it tends to be short-lived (only around 20 minutes) and can get expensive. Some fibers are now treated to help minimize their heat retention and reduce the overall temp of the fields. Fields in cooler climates may also experience hot summer days on their fields, but the warming properties play to their advantage in the spring and fall. When a natural grass field would normally be too hard or wet to play on, a well-designed field with synthetic grass helps add playable days to a calendar.
Synthetic turf is much more than just the green plastic fibers that you see on the field. The safety and performance of these fields lies beneath the surface in the infill and the pad. Historically, most systems did not involve a pad, and relied on a deeper infill to provide both proper footing (for speed and performance) and shock attenuation (or the cushioning). This usually meant compromising speed of play to achieve a desired level of safety.
New systems rely on the pad for protection and can have a more customized infill that is tailored to the desired footing. The biggest advantage to this separation of duties, so to speak, is that the pad isn’t affected by wear and tear like the infill, so the field maintains its shock attenuating properties better and more uniformly over time. Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen a substantial increase in the number of clients moving toward installing pads as a part of an overall synthetic turf system.
Field maintenance is important regardless of whether its composition is natural grass or synthetic turf. Synthetic turf fields can get compacted over time, and they need to be regularly groomed and cleaned to maintain their softness. Maintaining the infill helps the fiber stand up so that play happens on the top of the fiber versus the sides. This type of field will both play better and will last longer.
Conducting annual testing and inspection of your fields will help you track a maintenance program. Keeping the results of the testing and inspection on file is also a good risk management procedure. We recommend enlisting a 3rd party to test fields annually, either at the conclusion of spring sports or prior to the beginning of the fall sports season.
Communities who are considering player safety have cited concerns over health implications of synthetic turf infill composition and possible connections to cancer. Research by industry groups, universities and government entities has ranged from being generally favorable toward turf products, or at least inconclusive about the health risks.
If you desire additional resources, the following groups routinely conduct research on synthetic turf:
In the end, schools need to decide what will work best for their community based on all the factors at play.