Monitoring and documenting playing field conditions
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Pennsylvania Turfgrass Council publication Pennsylvania Turfgrass’s Summer 2018 issue. Thanks to Tom Serensits and editor John Kaminski, PhD for allowing us to reprint it.
With another fall sports season on the horizon, many of you are likely checking field use schedules, readying your field painters, and making sure you have enough seed to get you through the season. A field manager’s “to-do” list certainly grows as the calendar changes to fall. One key aspect of preparing for the upcoming season can sometimes be overlooked – a proper and thorough field inspection.
Field inspections help reduce injury risk and liability by identifying issues and allowing time to correct potential hazards before the players hit the field. In fact, the NFL now mandates that all fields be inspected prior to all games based on league-mandated criteria. Each field manager is then required to submit an official report following the inspection within 72 hours prior to kickoff. Following a similar program of routine field inspections demonstrates a proactive approach and commitment to athlete safety.
Synthetic turf fields
If you have a synthetic turf field, there are several potential hazards that require regular inspection. The first is carpet seams. Properly functioning (non-separating) seams do not pose an elevated risk. However, if the seams begin to fail and separate, they create potential tripping hazards.
When a synthetic turf field is installed, large sections of carpet are rolled across the width of the field. These carpet pieces are 5 yards wide and extend completely across the width of the field. As a result, seams are typically located on every 5-yard line. However, that is not always the case; sometimes the seams are located at the 2.5-yard lines or other locations. Once you locate the seams on your field, walk along each seam and check for separation, paying particular attention to high-use areas.
In addition to the seams going across the field, there are seams at each inlay. While inlays reduce or eliminate the need to paint field markings, careful inspection is needed to ensure they are flush with surrounding turf. All inlay seams should be inspected regularly for separation. Common inspection guidelines state that any seam that has separated more than 3 mm should be remediated according to the field manufacturer’s recommendations.
Particular attention should be paid to complex logos that contain many small inlays as these contain many seams and are often located at the highly used center of the field. Any separation, peeling, or unevenness should be addressed immediately.
Wrinkles in synthetic turf can sometimes develop over time. Wrinkles can also create a tripping hazard. Again, follow the field manufacturer’s recommendations for repair.
Check for depressions on high-use areas of the field resulting from low levels of infill. If the field is used for lacrosse, pay extra attention to the goalmouth areas. Lacrosse goalmouths are notorious for crumb rubber infill displacement and resulting depressions. If holes and depressions are found, additional crumb rubber infill should be installed in these areas.
A few buckets of crumb rubber likely can do the job. Spread a thin layer of rubber onto the area, brush it into the fibers with a broom and repeat until the infill is level with surrounding turf.
For bigger areas, larger pieces of equipment such as a topdresser can be used to spread crumb rubber across the field. No matter the size of the area, it is important to use the same size and type of rubber originally installed by the turf manufacturer.
Infill depth testing is also an important component of a field inspection. An easy way to measure infill depth is with a fireproofing depth gauge. These gauges are available online and typically cost less than $20. Be sure to obtain your target infill depth from your field manufacturer. Maintaining proper infill depth is important for the longevity of synthetic turf fibers and is key to keeping field hardness in check.
Field hardness can be measured with a Clegg Impact Soil Tester. All areas of the field should be under 100 when measured with this device. A guide detailing testing and managing surface hardness can be found at http://plantscience.psu.edu/research/centers/ssrc/resources.
The field should be free of any and all foreign objects and debris such as garbage, leaves, etc. Blowers and sweepers specifically designed for synthetic turf can help clean the field before and after games.
If the field has been used for any non-football events, such as a graduation, walk the field and look for nuts, bolts, screws, nails or any materials that may have been used in construction of the stage or a similar structure. The amount of metal debris that is sometimes found on fields can be both surprising and dangerous. At professional stadiums, field managers typically go over the field with a large magnet after events such as concerts to remove metal debris. Magnets capable of being pulled by utility carts are available for purchase and are a useful tool if your field regularly hosts non-football events.
Be sure to inspect sideline areas for obstacles such as trashcans and benches. These types of items should be far enough away from the playing surface that a player has a chance to stop before coming into contact with them. A minimum buffer zone of 25 feet is commonly recommended.
As with natural turf, goal posts should be checked to ensure they are properly anchored. Goal post pads should be installed for all games and practices.
Natural turf fields
There are a number of potential hazards that require attention on natural turf fields. Holes and depressions can increase injury risk and should be filled in as soon as possible using sand and/or soil. When time allows, the area should be preferably sodded if it is large or, at a minimum, the area should be seeded as soon as possible. Perennial ryegrass is often the species of choice as it germinates and matures quickly.
Be on the lookout for any debris and/or foreign objects such as metal helmet accessories and nails used to string out the field during the painting process.
If the field has an in-ground irrigation system, check that all sprinkler heads have fully retracted below the surface as designed and that any quick-coupler keys and similar items have been removed and valve caps have been properly placed in the closed position. It is a good practice to cover plastic valves box covers and similar covers with synthetic turf or another ‘non-slip’ covering as there is a potential for players to slip on these items, especially when wearing cleats. Also check to be sure there are no depressions in the area around each irrigation head and valve box.
High-use areas like goalmouths and the middle of the field require extra attention as these areas are at high risk for turf loss and elevated surface hardness. Monitor the amount of turf cover and overseed regularly. As on synthetic fields, surface hardness can be tested using a Clegg Impact Soil Tester. All areas of the field should be under 100 Gmax when measured with this device. As hardness levels increase, be sure there is adequate soil moisture since a dry field is typically a hard field. On synthetic fields, surface hardness can be tested using a Clegg Impact Soil Tester. All areas of the field should be under 100 Gmax when measured with this device. As hardness levels increase, be sure there is adequate soil moisture since a dry field is typically a hard field.
Goal posts and sideline areas should be inspected, and potential obstacles should be moved away from the immediate sideline area to create a buffer zone. After non-football events, the field should be checked for metal debris as previously described in the synthetic turf section.
Also be sure to inspect fences and any transition areas such as a transition from turf to a running track surrounding the field. The transition between surfaces should be smooth with minimal change in elevation.
Document your inspections
A field inspection checklist is a great way to be sure to not overlook any elements of your field inspection. It also provides a record that the field was inspected should an injury occur and the safety of the field be questioned. It is also a good idea to take pictures as a way to document field conditions throughout the year.
You can make your own field inspection checklist or use one that has already been created. The Sports Turf Managers Association has a thorough field checklist that is available under the ‘Knowledge Center’ on their website, stma.org. The website also contains “how to” videos for inspecting synthetic, natural, and baseball/softball fields.
Routine field inspections demonstrate a proactive approach to athlete safety. Hazards both on the field of play and the surrounding area can be identified and remediated before they pose an injury risk, creating a safer environment for all field users.