It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt… or dies. And a lack of regulation and oversight surrounding a popular, easily rentable party function could put tens of thousands of children at risk, according to new research from the University of Georgia.
The study found that since 2000, at least 479 people have been injured and 28 died worldwide in more than 130 inflatable bouncer accidents due to weather conditions. But the researchers caution that these estimates are likely an undercount.
These injuries are in addition to the estimated 10,000 ER visits in the US each year due to bounce house-related accidents that regularly result in broken bones, muscle sprains, and concussions.
“These inflatables aren’t something to set up and then forget to put them in the ground,” said John Knox, the study’s lead author and a geography professor at the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “What could go wrong? The answer is that it can blow away in winds not close to severe levels. Some of these cases were in pure clear skies.”
Many of the wind-related accidents happened on what appeared to be good weather days, according to the study: a cool and sunny day after a cold front with clear skies, a hot but calm day causing a dust devil, or a beautiful summer day with a thunderstorm somewhere in the distance. More than 80 of the 132 events identified by the study were caused by cold fronts or post-cold fronts, dust devils and thunderstorms above or in the distance.
Even small wind speeds pose a risk to the safety of the playhouse
Also known as inflatables, magic castles, bouncy balloons or bouncy castles, the portable playhouses are common fixtures at birthday parties, carnivals and even wedding receptions. They cost less than $100 on average to rent in the US and are an easy and fun way to keep kids (and some adults) entertained for hours.
But the study found that it didn’t take high winds to flip the inflatable playhouses, lift them into the air, or bounce them across the ground for several feet, often while people were still inside.
“There was a case in Southern California where one of the inflatables was picked up by the wind and fell in the middle of a highway with a boy still in the playhouse,” said Thomas Gill, the paper’s second author and a professor of environmental science at the University of California. University of Texas at El Paso. “If the wind gets too much, these inflatables should not only be evacuated, but also deflated. There have been cases where a bouncy castle was empty but it exploded and hit a bystander.”
Basic precautions such as securing inflatables in the ground, attaching sandbags to weight the structure and monitoring wind speeds and other hazardous weather conditions likely could have prevented many if not all accidents, the researchers said.
But less than half of states in the US have explicit statutes and regulations for using safe bounce houses, the study found. Seventeen states have no guidelines at all or specifically exclude inflatables such as inflatables from regulations.
Bounce houses should be attended by someone who is weather wise and can recognize when the wind is at an unsafe level. —John Knox, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
Of those that do have regulations, most do not explicitly state weather and wind conditions required for safe use.
“The regulatory landscape is everywhere from one state to another,” Knox said. “From our perspective, this is not good enough. Bounce houses should be attended by someone who is weather wise and can recognize when the wind is at an unsafe level.
The regulations of just 19 states cite the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards, which dictate a maximum gust speed of 25 miles per hour unless the inflatable is secured by a professional engineer. The standards also require an on-site meteorological-skilled attendant for commercial bouncy castle use.
However, of the 132 bouncer incidents, more than one in five actually occurred with wind speeds below those considered unsafe by ASTM standards. More than a third of the accidents occurred with perceived wind speeds between 0 and 20 miles per hour, and more than half occurred at or below 25 miles per hour.
“In anticipation of strong winds, we encourage people to secure outdoor items and remove loose tree branches to prevent damage or injury once the wind starts to pick up,” said Danielle Nagele, a public program coordinator at the National Weather Service that was not involved. in the study. “New information and research, such as this study, could help improve public awareness of wind-related risks.”
Keep an eye on the weather, secure the bouncy castle and keep an eye on the game to keep children safe
This publication is the first academic study to investigate wind-related inflatable accidents.
The researchers spent ten years searching for wind-related incidents, resulting in tens of thousands of Google searches and alerts to map the locations, date and weather conditions of each of the 132 documented cases found worldwide. Multiple authors have conducted independent analyzes using a variety of sources, including National Weather Service observations and satellite imagery to classify weather conditions. The researchers also conducted independent analyzes and classifications of state regulations for inflatable devices.
The researchers used this information to create a website to document their findings and provide safety tips to consumers.
Wind-related incidents and accidents are only a small part of the overall safety risk of inflatables.” —Thomas Gill, University of Texas at El Paso
The most important things people can do to enjoy bouncy castles safely are to monitor the weather, properly set up bouncy castles with sticks and/or sandbags, and always have an adult monitor bouncer users’ behaviour.
“Make taking wind measurements part of the fun of the event,” Gill said. “Wind related incidents and accidents are only a small part of the overall safety risk of inflatables. While they are a lot of fun, there are dangers involved, and people should take them seriously.”
The study was recently published online in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. It was co-authored by Castle Williams, a doctoral graduate of UGA’s Department of Geography and social scientist contractor in support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Jada Smith, an undergraduate researcher in the Department of Geography; Lucas Boggs, a UGA School of Law graduate and a practicing attorney; Alan Black, a doctoral graduate of the Department of Geography and assistant professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville; and Hope Skypek, a graduate of the Department of Geography and a student at the School of Law.