A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Taking the fun out of everything — but inflatables can be dangerous; be watchful

How dangerous are inflatable slides or bounce houses? Well, that depends on if you ask my college-aged daughter Amanda who had an incident that would cause most kids to develop a phobia of inflatables.

This incident occurred when she was just 4-years-old playing alone inside an inflatable moonwalk right next to us as my wife and I were watching our oldest daughter compete in a softball game.

We were just 10 feet away when we heard her start to scream bloody murder. We turned to discover that the inflatable had become unplugged and had deflated in a matter of seconds, trapping our 4-year-old daughter from the weight of the commercial inflatable grade material.

With the help of the attendant who magically reappeared once everybody came running and a couple of parents, we were able to get to her within less than a minute. She walked away unscathed but was forever terrified from the experience. It probably explains her claustrophobia today.

Inflatables are colorful, bouncy, and offer hours of pure irresistible recreational fun for children throughout America. They were first commercially produced in the late 1970s and before the turn of the century, inflatable rental companies started popping up everywhere marketing their bouncy fun to every birthday party, fundraisers, company picnics and thousands of school functions throughout the country.

Today you can now even purchase your very own inflatable bounce house for as little as $300 on Amazon.com

As parents, we find such entertainment and activity for our kids as non-threatening and risk-free, but yet that is not exactly true.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Inflatables appear to be quite tame compared to mechanical amusement rides you find at carnivals and amusement parks, but statistics show that they are just as capable of causing severe injury and death.

The growth in popularity of moonwalks has led to other types of inflatables which include slides, obstacle courses, games, and more. But some children have not been so lucky and some have not walked away from an accident involving an inflatable.

When you take a closer look at the dangers of inflatables, the fun can come to end very quickly as kids are chipping and losing teeth, breaking bones, becoming paralyzed and even killed.

In 2007, a 3-year-old died after he was crushed by two adults while playing in an inflatable. Another young girl died after she broke her neck doing somersaults down an inflatable ride in Festus, MO. Then another 17-year boy became partially paralyzed after attempting a backflip on an inflatable ride, falling on his neck.

There are even a handful of stories there where theses inflatable have gone airborne with children in tow when a poorly anchored inflatable was blown away after high winds kicked up from an approaching storm.

Just this past April in China two children was killed and 20 other people injured after a bouncy castle was blown high nearly 100 feet into the sky by a dust devil that struck in central Henan province.

In June 2009 in Middletown, OH, a gust of wind caught the poorly anchored inflatable slide and lifted it some 40 feet into the air as an 11-year-old boy held on for dear life.

After a few terrifying moments in this unintended balloon ride, the story came to a happy ending after the boy landed safely thanks to some quick-thinking bystanders who quickly deflated the inflatable before the next gust of wind came around. The unintended balloon flight highlights the dangers of inflatables, which are subject to relatively few safety rules and regulations.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report on inflatables in 2009, which showed that between 2003 and 2007 there were 31,069 injuries caused by inflatables that were treated in emergency rooms. There were four deaths, all a result of the victim striking their head on a hard surface.

According to a published story in the journal Pediatrics, injuries on inflatable bouncers have increased 15-fold from 1995 to 2010.

Another report estimates that on average, 31 children a day are transported to U.S. emergency departments for treatment of bounce-house injuries, including fractured bones and muscle damage.

Many of the safety problems that arise are due to a lack of proper education on the part of inflatables rental companies, as some inflatable operators may not even be aware of the new ASTM F 2374-04 Standard Practice for Design, Manufacture, Operation and Maintenance of Inflatable Amusement Devices, and insurance requirements.

Compounding the problem, rental companies sometimes do a poor job training staff or inflatable attendants, and often times will rent their equipment without the proper instruction or training for their clients.

The fact of the matter is that we have safety guidelines for playgrounds and even trampolines, but not for inflatables, as many are starting to now call for the Consumer Product Safety Commission to develop such guidelines for these inflatables. But it’s up to the states or local municipalities to regulate inflatables and only a few have done just that. In New Jersey, they require inspections and mandates that inflatables meet wind-anchorage and combustibility requirements. ASTM International is a voluntary-standards development organization, that has developed a standard for inflatables. But while ASTM standards don’t carry the weight of law, they may be referenced in a courtroom when facing a lawsuit after an unfortunate event.

Before allowing your child to play in an inflatable, it is recommended that you spend a few minutes checking out the operation and ask the following questions:

 Is the bouncy castle securely anchored? All anchorage points should be used and if situated on hard ground, mooring straps should be affixed to solid points.

 Is the inflatable on grass or hard surfaces? If possible inflatables should always avoid being set up on hard surfaces.

 If the inflatable is being used outdoors, is the blower motor plugged into an electrical outlet that is ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protected? If a GFCI outlet is not available, a GFCI extension cord may be utilized.

 Is it too windy for the inflatable? Most manufacturer recommendations to not use if winds exceed 15 to 25 MPH. If winds top 25 mph and greater, you should unload the inflatable and deflate the ride as soon as possible.

 Is there at least one person constantly supervising and controlling the children on the bouncy castle?

 Does the ride appear to be overloaded or unstable? Look for the maximum load capacity.

 Are impact-absorbing mats positioned at the exits/entry points of the inflatable?

 Is the inflatable too close to an overhead electrical line?

 Are children of different ages/sizes mixed? If the demand is great the attendant should operate a rotation to avoid larger children crushing smaller ones.

 Are children instructed to remove sharp articles of clothing like shoes, buckles, and jewelry and is the rule enforced?

 Could the blower inflating the ride accidentally be unplugged, collapsing and possibly injuring the riders? Make sure that the blower and power supply is being stored safely away from any foot traffic where it can be accidentally unplugged.

Always remember to rent from a reputable and insured company and verify that they have the proper liability insurance coverage, by requesting a copy of their insurance certificate. If they can’t or won’t produce such a certificate then do not do business with them.

If you are renting the inflatable for your organization, church or school, then remember to ask that they name you as an additional insured on the rental company’s insurance which will provide you another layer of protection from a liability standpoint.

If you are renting the equipment yourself for an event without paying for the operator/attendants to supervise your event, remember you will be held responsible for any injuries so be sure to check with your insurance agent to make sure that you are adequately insured in the event of a tragic accident. You will want to make sure that you follow all the same safety rules and remain vigilant & on guard to supervise those that are using the inflatable.

Because children are the end users, the burden of safety ultimately falls on the parent’s shoulders, as they should be familiar with the risks and dangers inherent to inflatables. Even if there’s an operator on site, always remember to never leave your child unattended on an inflatable ride as injuries are almost always preventable with proper supervision.

Be Safe My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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One Comment

  1. Matt says:

    All of the points Mr. Moore mentioned above are worth noting, but one thing customers renting these units often fail to ask about is insurance. Make sure the company you’re renting from is insured and be sure to ask the company about the specifics of their insurance policy. If there’s an accident (God forbid), you want to know the company has coverage. And having that insurance shows that it’s a professional operation and that they take safety seriously.

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