Bouncy houses: safer than you think?
The exit of New England's unpredictable spring weather signals the start of the short-lived outdoor party season.
Of the many summer shenanigans parents could schedule for their youngsters, the "bouncy house" — a cross-generational summer party staple — might be one of the most sought after activities.
Although these inflatable bundles of fun have most children begging "five more minutes, Mom," recent bouncy house-related accidents causing serious injuries have called into question the safety of the play structures.
In mid-May, two boys from upstate New York, ages 5 and 6, sustained serious injuries after falling 15 feet from a bouncy house that had been swept away by a sudden gust of wind. A 10-year-old girl, who fell out of the bouncy house before it took flight, suffered minor scrapes. A few weeks later, a similar incident occurred in Colorado after an inflatable bounce castle became detached from its compressor, sending it tumbling 300 feet across a field and injuring two 10-year-old boys.
Despite heavy media coverage of the two events, parents at the Arlington Greek Festival held by St. Athanasius the Great Greek Orthodox Church on June 7 laughed and took pictures of their children bounding joyfully on numerous inflatable bounce houses without worry.
"I feel like these are much safer than those carnival rides," says Lisa Daniell of Arlington, as she watched her 7-year-old son, Michael, play on one of the many bounce houses. "Those seem very unsafe."
And yet, bounce house-related injuries are not uncommon. A study released in 2012 by Dr. Gary Smith of Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, showed that about 65,000 children ages 17 and under were treated for injuries sustained on a bounce house between 1990 and 2010 in the United States. All injuries documented in the study were treated in emergency departments of hospitals.
Fifty-four percent of the children injured were between the ages of 6 and 12, according to the study, with the most common injuries being fractures and sprains or strains.
Dr. Lois Lee, an attending physician in the emergency department of Boston Children's Hospital, says that the environment created by a bounce house provokes more injuries than the bounce house breaking loose of its bounds, like in the New York and Colorado cases.
"You have a bunch of kids jumping up and down on an unstable surface," says Lee, adding that the most common kinds of bounce house injuries she has seen are when children land awkwardly and injure an arm or a leg.
Kelly Soares, a mother from Rhode Island who attended the Arlington Greek Festival, says that she was not worried about the bounce houses coming loose during the event.
"Moonwalks seem very safe and are a good time for the kids," she says, adding that she checked the weather just to be safe.
Massachusetts General Hospital treated 22 injuries related to bounce houses between May 2008 and May 2014, according to hospital data. Nineteen of those injuries involved children under the age of 20, the vast majority being sprains or fractured ankles, arms, or legs.
Dr. Ari Cohen, chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, says playing in a bounce house is relatively safe, unless there are too many children playing at once or there is minimal supervision.
"These are injuries your child could get playing tag," Cohen says.
Many party rental services offering bounce houses in the Boston-area provide capacity guidelines and other safety tips for concerned parents. Busy Bee Jumpers and Tents, located in Whitman, displays an entire list of safety regulations for parents to follow on its website. Busy Bee provided all of the bounce houses for the Arlington event.
Sal Longo, general manager and co-owner, says that he has his own staff deliver, set up, and remove all units themselves to ensure safety for their customers. Despite the recent high-profile incidents, he says that they have not lost any business.
"I feel smaller companies that lack the proper safety training will be severely hurt by the recent problems in the industry," says Longo.
In Massachusetts, all inflatable "devices" are licensed through the Department of Public Safety and individually inspected annually. All large-scale inflatable structures are inspected upon set up as well.
"No inflatable device is allowed to even be used before it has been inspected," says Terrel Harris, spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety.
Owners of licensed inflatable devices are required by state law to train all personnel in safety and operation and are required to do routine inspections of their own equipment as well.
Under the watchful eyes of multiple Busy Bee workers and parents, children attending the Arlington Greek Festival continued to race across inflated obstacle courses, slide down bouncy slides, and bounce on moonwalks of their choosing long into the afternoon.
"My favorite was definitely the slide because I got to go super fast," Michael said before racing away to have another go around.
The Post-Star's photo of the bouncy house incident in New York: