Each year, local authorities and facility management companies receive compensation claims arising from injuries sustained on artificial sports pitches. As with all accidents, a broken ankle, damaged knee or sprained wrist can simply occur during active play on a sports surface; however, the condition of the artificial pitch itself could also be a contributory factor in a player suffering injury.
The 'blame culture', ubiquitous in modern society, encourages the pursuit of litigation, and some injury claims firms even incorporate a dedicated Astroturf Accident Compensation within their remit.
Claims are often centred on the performance characteristics of an artificial pitch, or else the presence of rips or tears in the carpet. The performance, durability and safety of an artificial sports pitch is intrinsically linked to the level of maintenance completed throughout its life, and understanding your maintenance responsibilities could go a long way to avoiding a costly court case in the future, as Nick Harris of Technical Surfaces explains.
For the owners and operators of artificial sports pitches, it is important, first and foremost, to understand that there is a recommendation for such surfaces to conform to British standards. BS 7044 Artificial Sports Surfaces was developed by the British Standards Institution to set out the characteristics and performance requirements of artificial pitches.
'Performance', in this context, is determined by a pitch's dimensions, durability, safety and playing performance. For an artificial pitch to conform to BS 7044, it must successfully pass a series of tests, including ball roll and rebound, traction, abrasion resistance and tensile strength, whilst testing methods are also standardised to ensure uniformity.
An element of testing is completed in laboratory conditions (resistance to air ageing, abrasion resistance to metal blades, for example), and so holds little relevance in the practical day-to-day management of an artificial pitch; however, a series of maintenance procedures can be completed which will impact directly on criteria such as ball behaviour and player performance. This is particularly relevant when you consider that uneven ball bounce is cited on one injury claims company's website as a likely cause of injury that can be sustained on an artificial pitch.
It is also important to check that you have sufficient cover within your insurance policy should an accident take place on your artificial pitch, as the facility might not be covered automatically by standard insurance. Artificial pitches require special consideration depending on their location, build quality, susceptibility to vandalism or damage, security in place, etc. and must be insured accordingly.
However, it is not only to avoid the threat of legal action arising from injury that maintenance should be completed regularly on artificial surfaces: The RFU stipulates that artificial pitches hosting competitive rugby matches must conform to IRB Regulation 22 as a requirement, not only of the IRB Law of the game but also of the RFU and a number of insurance companies. Within Regulation 22, it clearly states that maintenance is a necessity, and that proof of maintenance must be demonstrated to an appropriate Test Institute at repeated intervals. Artificial rugby pitches must be analysed by Test Institutes on a regular basis to ensure that they continue to meet the performance requirements of English rugby's governing body.
In conjunction with the FA and the Football Foundation, the RFU has also developed a Framework Agreement for the Provision of Artificial Grass Pitches. Within this, particular focus is given to the need for pitches installed under this scheme to satisfy certain performance criteria, to ensure a high standard of playing surface is provided to end users.
From a maintenance perspective, the pitch manufacturers are required to identify the individual maintenance needs of each artificial surface, based on determining factors including pitch size and projected usage levels. The Framework Agreement further stipulates that the programme of maintenance must be reviewed regularly, and should be revised to reflect any changes in usage levels or pitch performance. In line with an overall emphasis on quality control, a suitable maintenance programme is considered a prerequisite to ensuring a pitch's compliance with the manufacturer's warranty.
So, what measures can be put in place to reduce the risk of injury on an artificial sports pitch, thereby minimising the likelihood of a compensation claim?
As mentioned previously, some preventative actions can be put in place by the owners and operators of artificial pitches, such as taking out suitable insurance cover and familiarisation with the conditions of the warranty. However, the majority of the work involved in ensuring a pitch is 'fit for purpose' will fall within the remit of the grounds team, and, whilst accidents will always happen, they can often be prevented by ensuring that those charged with the day-to-day running of an artificial pitch are fully equipped with the necessary knowledge and resources to implement best practice, in accordance with industry guidelines.
In my experience, the basis of any good maintenance regime for a grounds team is preparation and forward planning. Establish a routine of daily, in-house inspections to familiarise yourself with your artificial pitch and help you identify and address any minor issues before they become major problems.
Torn or ripped carpet poses a potential trip hazard to users of the facility; a lifted seam can be re-stuck for much less than it will cost to replace a full seam, and with less hassle, too.
Regular drag brushing forms the backbone of any maintenance programme, and can be completed by pulling a suitable brush, rake or mat over the surface using a tractor. This helps to redistribute any infill which has become displaced through general play, whilst also helping to lift the carpet fibres. The industry standard is for this process to be carried out, as a minimum, on a weekly basis.
Alongside these everyday tasks, it is important to utilise the services of a maintenance company to complete the more specialist works on your artificial sports pitch. It is worthwhile choosing the right company to work with, as the quality of both the service provided and the works completed can, in the right hands, give you greater assurance that your facility will remain in the best possible condition. A range of criteria can help you to determine the suitability of a maintenance provider, including their method statements and risk assessments for all the services they offer, their health and safety policy, financial stability, quality management systems certification, and any industry memberships and accreditations.
Cost is also an important consideration, particularly in the current climate, but as with all things in life, you get what you pay for, and it is well worth investing in the long-term maintenance of your artificial pitch, as the rewards that you reap will be that much greater, whilst the risk of damage and injury will lessen accordingly.
The basis of a regular contract with your specialist maintenance provider should focus on the regular removal of the accrued dirt, debris and contamination that can bed in amongst the granular infill. A hardened or compacted infill can impact greatly on ball roll and bounce, as well as the feel of the surface underfoot and, if overlooked in the long term, could be considered a contributory factor in players sustaining injury.
Drag brushing alone does not address this, so it is important that the artificial pitch is swept using a rotary brush with filtration systems, which lift and clean the top layer of infill before returning it to the carpet. This service should ideally be carried out on a monthly basis to complement the weekly in-house drag brushing of the pitch. A more intense clean should also be completed either annually or, as a minimum, every second year. Such processes are designed to get much deeper into the carpet pile, removing any dust, debris and broken-down carpet fibres that have migrated lower into the infill. Moss and weed growth can also cause a potential slip hazard for players, and must be treated and removed on a regular basis.
When legal action is brought following an accident on an artificial pitch, documentation is often required to demonstrate proof that repairs have been completed, or else to show that the health & safety status of the facility has been assessed regularly by a competent third party. Detailed evaluations should be conducted annually by an artificial pitch maintenance specialist, to monitor the factors affecting player performance and pitch endurance, such as carpet pile wear, infill levels and distribution, and drainage capabilities.
It is also important to remember that the safety status of an artificial pitch extends beyond the playing surface itself, to include any playing equipment, perimeter fencing, surrounds and access. For instance, goals should conform to the relevant British standards, and it is the responsibility of the facility operators to ensure they are in good condition at all times. A comprehensive assessment of your facility should, therefore, include advice on suitable anchorage for securing goals in place, to prevent goalposts from collapsing or toppling forwards and causing serious injuries or even fatalities.
There is also a growing need for those in charge of artificial sports pitches to record total weekly and monthly hours of usage, as well as logging all maintenance activities, to ensure warranty compliance. To reflect this, advancements have been made by some maintenance companies within the industry to introduce interactive web-based systems, such as O.T.I.S, the Online Technical Information System from Technical Surfaces, that encourage pitch owners to record weekly usage levels and, should they wish, to input data on any revenue generated from pitch bookings. They can also access and retrieve all reports produced on the condition of their pitch, with corresponding maintenance recommendations, supporting literature and health and safety documentation as required. Online access to a full service history is extremely beneficial, as it allows customers to view and update the historical routine and specialist maintenance carried out both in-house and by the maintenance specialist, whilst future works can be scheduled at suitable intervals to ensure continuity and consistency.
We are often asked the question, is our artificial pitch safe to play on? Unfortunately, a definitive answer is difficult to provide, as third parties, such as your original pitch installer/manufacturer, a pitch maintenance specialist, even your insurance provider, cannot guarantee a set of circumstances in which a pitch is or isn't playable.
A specialist maintenance company should be able to adequately assess the current condition of your pitch and its surrounds and, based on their findings, they might recommend the pitch is not used until appropriate remedial works have been completed, but the ultimate responsibility for the artificial pitch lies with the owner or operator, and judgement calls as to its playability must be made accordingly. Having the necessary knowledge and education to understand the workings of an artificial sports pitch can help you to make such decisions, and training courses are available to facilitate learning about these types of facility.
Essentially, implementing a programme of routine and specialist maintenance throughout the life of an artificial pitch can help to ensure its longevity and safety, as well as preserve its aesthetics and performance levels. Not only that, it can also assist in the protection of the pitch's warranty and, crucially, provide peace of mind that, in the unlikely event of an accident, all appropriate measures have been taken to safeguard you against liability legal cases.
Technical Surfaces may be contacted on 08702 400 700.