Very often our customers approach us with the same query:
We’ve been told that we don’t need a safety surface if the footholds are below 60cm. Is this true?
In regard to the surfacing beneath the climbing wall, BS EN 1176-1:2008 states that “It is not necessary to test the critical fall height of a surface beneath playground equipment having a free fall height of less than 600 mm and which does not cause forced movement on the body of the user.”. Many people interpret this as meaning there is no need at all for safety surfacing; however this statement only advises that if a surface is used it does not need to be tested for a CFH (critical fall height) rating. This does not negate the need for a surface of some kind. It is therefore down to the school to carry out a risk assessment and to decide whether the potential safety benefits of a surface make it worthwhile. We always recommend safety surfacing, as it is still possible for a user to fall from the wall and sustain a head injury, should they fall in an awkward manner. Even if it is a thin rubber surface of around 30 to 50mm, this will greatly reduce this risk. Ultimately it is down to the risk assessment of the school to determine the need, rather than relying on the stipulations of the BS EN 1176 standard which is intended to provide defined minimum requirements rather than a default approach for all situations.
Another problem with the original statement is that it assumes the free height of fall is determined by the height of the foothold. However, BS EN 1176-1:2008 actually states that in the case where “Type of use” is “Climbing (When body support is a combination of feet/legs and hands)” then the “Free height of fall [is] measured from maximum hand support minus 1 m to the surface below“. On a traverse climbing wall, for example, this would mean that to keep within the limit of 60cm, the highest hand hold would need to be 1.6m from the ground. This is reasonable for young children, however we would suggest that for the ages of 11 years and above, this may limit the interest of the climbing wall since there will be no vertical variation of the routes.
People often look for a definitive yes/no answer to these questions, whereas in fact the answer is more open to common sense in the form of assessment of risk, the design of the equipment, supervision and quite possibly, budget restraints.