Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer and beginning of fall. Across the country, as the weather cools, fairs and festivals will pop up, along with changing leaves, pumpkins, and hastily-assembled carnival rides.
Among them will be bounce houses – or inflatables, moon bounces, bouncy castles, closed inflatable trampolines, whatever you want to call them – where kids can jump and scream within the safety of blown-up walls.
It turns out that bounce houses aren’t really as safe as you might think. In fact, they’re surprisingly dangerous.
But don’t worry. We’re here with a slew of safety tips to make sure you don’t become a victim of the epidemic that’s sweeping the nation like a bounce house swept up in a strong gust of wind.
According to a study done by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in 2010 "a total of 31 children per day were treated in US [emergency departments] for an inflatable bouncer–related injury, which equals a child every 46 minutes nationally."
Every 46 minutes! In less time than it takes to watch an episode of [Insert Latest Hit Netflix Show Here], a child is getting injured in a bounce house.
What kind of injuries? Glad you asked, because the answer is all of them.
Again, from the AAP: soft tissue injuries, strains and sprains, lacerations, fractures, concussions, and 13.9% ominously labeled "Other."
Children have been hurt by falling from houses that have gone airborne, Wizard of Oz-style. An 11-year old broke her tibia and fibula. There were over 64,000 injuries from 1990 to 2010, a fact that no one talks about nearly enough. (Bet you’ve never heard Clinton or Trump mention it a single time during any of their campaign speeches.)
Clearly everyone has to remain vigilant, and there are some basic "Bounce House Safety 101" steps you can go through, whether you’re setting up your own bounce house or using a commercial one for entertainment.
Setting up your own bounce house
Bounce houses have grown in popularity over the years because even without professionals they’re easy to rent out or even to buy. You can purchase a bounce house of your very own for under $400, which is just a little bit more expensive than a PlayStation.
But as Spiderman’s Uncle said before he died in a bounce castle accident, with great power comes great responsibility. Here’s what you need to be aware of when you’re taking bounce houses into your own hands.
Beware sharp objects
It seems like a no-brainer, but you should keep objects with puncturing powers away from anything inflatable, including bounce houses. That doesn’t just mean sharp objects like knives and scissors. (If your kids are also playing with those inside of a bounce house, that’s a whole other set of issues [but also your house seems fun and can you be my parents?].) It also means keeping shoes, jewelry, and glasses (which is a pretty standard bounce house rule) away from the castle doors.
Inflatable attractions are pumped full of air by air pumps, like an air mattress or literally anything else that is inflatable. If those go out, the house deflates; if that happens with kids still inside, you’ve got a problem, considering small bounce houses weigh 50 pounds on its own.
In 2013, three kids, including a toddler, were saved from a collapsed bounce house in Washington. That collapse happened because the generator keeping the house inflated ran out of gas. If you’re using an electric inflator rather than a gas-powered one, the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission suggests a "built-in ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI)" to ward off shortages.
As with the bounce house itself, make sure you know how to operate the inflator so that, in the event that something does go wrong, you can be quick to act.
Watch for strong winds
Seriously, the last thing you want is for this to happen.
Nationwide recommends deflating your inflatable structure when wind speeds reach 13-17 MPH. Some inflatables are built to withstand up to 25 MPH, so make sure you consult the owner’s manual. For general guidelines, the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission uses this chart:
On that same note, make sure the bounce house is staked into the ground properly. According to one CNN report, an operator of a bounce house was observed using "4- or 5-inch plastic stakes" when they should have been using "30- 40-inch heavy-duty metal" stakes. Securing the bounce house is a surefire way to prevent a catastrophe.
Keep an eye on the kids
A lot of the dangers posed to kids come from bounce houses, but you have to watch out for the other side of that equation – the kids.
Bounce houses usually take place at parties, where kids are already high on sugar and bouncing off the (real) walls.
Most bounce houses have a recommended age of at least 6 years old, and that the kids inside be of a similar size and weight. (That means you shouldn’t jump in with your kids.) Several bounce house retailers also suggest having one child at a time inside the bounce house, but let’s be honest – that’s probably not happening because it’s super lame.
More realistically, you should go over some ground rules with the kids first and hold them to it. That includes keeping horseplay, rough (bounce) housing, and tomfoolery to a minimum. After all, the AAP report lists "Collided with another user; pushed, kicked, or fell on top of on bouncer" as accounting for over 16% of the causes of injuries in their study, and the "Other" category, at 8.5%, includes "stunts".
As always, stunts should be left to the professionals.
Commercial bounce house safety
The alternative to getting your own bounce house, whether renting or buying, is to hire professionals to set up and run the bounce house for you. A lot of the same common sense rules apply, but you’ll have experts there to take care of the heavy lifting.
Still, you should ask some questions before the party gets started.
Make sure they follow guidelines
Are your bounce house operators following best practices and safety protocols? For instance, according to the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission, "Minimum number of operators on a large inflatable slide (over 15 feet tall) is two (2)."
In fact, those guidelines are great to review even if you do have someone there to operate the bounce house for you. It’ll help you make sure the provider is following best practices and isn’t violating any manufacturer requirements like maximum number of people or what wind speeds the house is rated for – the same things you’d be looking out for if you were running it yourself.
You can also ask if they’re certified. Organizations like the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials have "resources for amusement industry professionals dedicated to the safety of the industry and its patrons" and will certify people for device inspection.
Finally, make sure the company has liability insurance. The last thing you want is for a bounce house to fly into a real house and you’re on the hook for any damages as a result.
Check your state’s regulations
Surprisingly, there are no national guidelines concerning bounce houses, which seems like a real oversight in the 2016 election cycle.
Still, states run somewhat of a tighter ship. For example, Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture has a Bureau of Ride and Measurement Standards (a.k.a. the buzzkill department) where you can find information on registrations and inspections. When you’re looking for bounce house providers, do a quick search or call your state’s office to find out if their equipment is up to snuff.
Also ask the supplier for records on past accidents – the causes and, importantly, preventative steps taken since. It might help give you peace of mind that even if something happened the past, the provider was responsible enough to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Bounce houses seem dangerous – and they can be – but consider this: remember that "64,000 over 20 years" injury stat at the beginning of this article? Well, in 2012 alone, there were 270,000 playground injuries and 114,000 skateboarding injuries. In the grand scheme of things, bounce houses are relatively safe. (It’s just that most skateboarding accidents don’t see children getting floated 20 feet into the air.)
With some common sense and safety precautions, bounce houses can be a fun way for kids to blow off steam. Just make sure everything is staked down. (And please don’t get in the bounce house with your kids. People really got hurt last time, Steve!)