Are Artificial Turf Fields Safe For Athletes?
The short answer is yes! Artificial turf fields are safe, provided they are constructed correctly and properly maintained.
Let us backup for a moment…natural grass fields will always be the preferred playing surface, provided they are well maintained and in good shape. The major knock against natural grass fields is they cannot take the wear and tear after hours of play. In addition, in certain climates, the soil can become very compacted and hard – think very hot dry summers or very cold winters. Ultimately, natural grass is very difficult to maintain the level of consistency, playability, and safety. That is why artificial surfaces have become so popular…they are more predictable and consistent in their performance and safety.
So, the question becomes how do you build a safe field? First, you must select a turf system from a certified manufacture who spends the time, effort, and energy to invest in studying player safety – and how their turf systems perform. The goal is to mimic natural grass.
Each manufacture’s system will have recommended amounts of infill that act as a cushion for the athlete’s head and body to protect them from the stone beneath the turf. Typically, this consists of sand and crumb rubber in varying amounts, measured in pounds per square foot (1×1) area. There are tests designed to measure the amount of “cushion” that is provided by the infill called GMAX and HIC test. (More on GMAX and HIC later.)
With the industry’s desire to make infills that do not retain as much heat, they have come up with alternate infills that eliminate the heat absorption of crumb rubber. When the rubber is eliminated from the field so is the “cushion” part that protects the athlete from concussions. To compensate from the rubber being removed, the industry has engineered shock pads (think carpet pad) that is placed on top of the stone, and beneath the turf. This provides for consistent fall protection and allows owners to choose organic infills which reduce the amount of heat that rubber generally holds or tuning the infill to the performance of the sports being played on the surface.
The importance of shock pads cannot be overlooked. Although crumb rubber is effective at cushioning falls it is not ideal, because crumb rubber moves.The rubber can migrate from the center of the field to the sidelines. (That is why a consistent maintenance plan is so important. Rubber needs to be added and redistributed to keep the field at a steady and consistent GMAX rating.)
Because shock pads do not move or migrate (they are flat polypropylene panels that blanket the stone) they are predictable, so GMAX is 100% consistent and guaranteed on every area of the field for multiple field life cycles.
The other component of player safety is lower extremity injuries. These typically come from “soft” fields or from fields where the player’s cleats do not properly release when they plant their foot. Shock pads allow the manufacture to increase the sand content, which is essential for footing and ballast for turf stability, which firms up the playing surface. By adding more sand, these fields tend to perform more like natural grass, reduce muscle fatigue and allow for better turf cleat interaction.
It is important to research, ask questions, request the safety data, and evaluate what level of safety and maintenance you are willing to take on. You can build a safe high-performance surface if you choose correctly.