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Head protection | Body protection | Sports
March 2015

Protecting heads and bodies

Head injuries in sport can be fatal and body injuries can have lifelong traumatic effects. RHIANAH RHODE reports on how the different sports tackle the issue of protection for athletes

All international sporting bodies adopt rules about protective wear to try and prevent injuries to participating athletes. When a player wearing the prescribed protection is injured — or worse, dies — the international shockwaves prompt manufacturers and distributors to re-examine the effectiveness of the protective gear worn by athletes.

Especially when death occurs as a result of an injury while the player was wearing protection … as in the case of Australian cricketer Phil Hughes.

For several years the International Cricket Council (ICC) have been concerned about the number of facial injuries sustained by batsmen wearing helmets, where the ball either forced its way between the peak of the helmet and the top bar of the grille, or by the ball driving the grille into the batsman’s face — for example, injuries sustained by Gary Kirsten and Craig Kieswetter, explains Peter Wright, MD of Gunn & Moore.

Craig Kieswetter is currently recovering from a serious injury that nearly ended his career, says Richard Gray, international marketing director of Grays International, owner of Gray-Nicolls cricket. “The ball came from the front, through the grille, and hit his eye.”

The ICC therefore commissioned the respected British Standards Institute (BSI) in 2011 to update their 1998 standards relating to cricket helmets. A BSI committee, which included several manufacturers, medics, players' representatives and cricket experts, worked for two years to revise the helmet safety standards to ensure much greater protection to the face, jaw and temple areas of the wearer, explains Wright, who served on both the 1997/8 and 2011 committees.

The ICC partly funded research at Loughborough University, which has superb facilities, including a test rig with a ball launcher and high speed camera that enabled manufacturers to fully understand what happens when a ball travelling at 90mph collides with a head protector.

“These tests made us realise that the design of grilles needed to be improved and we engaged a ballistics expert to assist us,” says Wright.

“In super slow motion one could see that the shell and grille were bending with impact,” says Gray, whose company was also working with the authorities to improve helmet designs. Another issue was that players could adjust the grille and they brought it down too far to improve visibility.

New helmet standards

The new UK standard came into effect in July 2014 and manufacturers were given time to re-design their grilles, in particular, to pass the tests. Those improved helmets are now being sold into the market.

Consequently, the next generation of helmets like the Gunn & Moore Icon Geo and Purist Geo, locally distributed by Opal Sports, will offer greater protection. “The face guard design, The Geo, works so well that we have patented it,” says Wright.

“The innovative part is that it uses the same radii for each wire, regardless of whether the wire runs horizontally, diagonally or vertically. This gives the protector significant inherent strength and allows efficient use of metal, enabling the face guard to be as lightweight as possible, without compromising protection.”

The graphic illustration (p54) from Masuri show how the old Original Test model helmet, worn by Hughes, compares to the new Masuri Vision Series design, which protects a much wider area. This was introduced after the new BSI standards were implemented.

“We are constantly looking at improving our helmet designs to ensure that there is maximum protection for the player without affecting the comfort or the weight of the helmet,” says Basil Gasparis of TK Sports. Their Shrey helmet was also tested at Loughborough and complies with the new BSI standars.

Local brand Stormforce is also redesigning their helmets with a decreased gap between the grille and peak, to comply with the new ICC standards. They will also be introducing a new helmet with an extended back section “to provide an option for players/parents who are looking for peace of mind,” says Lauren McCleland of brand owner Orbit Sports.

“We will incorporate our new Xpro extreme impact protection padding in selected top-of-the-range helmet models,” she adds. The Xpro padding, which absorbs more than 90% of impact energy (see p56), will replace the standard foam that is currently being used.

Following the Hughes fatality, Cricket Australia has also announced that they are launching a review of safety standards for protective equipment.

While the death of Phil Hughes was extremely distressing — not only for his family and friends — but also the international cricket community, Wright says that the circumstances of the injury were so unusual that it could be termed a freak accident.

“Of course it would be possible to protect the neck area of the batsman, but this is not straightforward,” he says. “It is important that any added protection does not restrict the movement of the batsman's neck or add too much weight.”

The problem with protecting the back of the neck is that the batsman needs full ability to move to avoid the ball, explains a member of the Gray-Nicolls design team. It would defeat the purpose if the helmet design prevents the batsman from avoiding the ball in the first place, or contributes to poor technique.

It is therefore a very delicate balance to get it right, says Gray.

“Not so long ago we used to have a Predator helmet, which Andrew Strauss and others used to wear, which did have a dropped neck,” he says.

“But the players didn’t like the look of it and it was dropped. Now it’s perhaps time to bring it back.”

Other factors that manufacturers have to take into account when adding protection to the back, are dehydration, especially if a batsman is at the crease for many hours.

Rugby protective

While the ICC looks at ways of providing more protection for cricketers, many rugby players seem to be happy that the wearing of protective gear is not compulsory in their bone crunching sport.

Less than 15% of the 327 male and female rugby players who took part in a study by Marshall et al.* (See references below) use protective gear like support sleeves, headgear, head tape, etc. Similarly, less than 15 % of the players that who took part in a study by Comstock et al.** wore any protective gear.

South African rugby players’ attitudes toward wearing protective head- and body wear are, however, more positive than in the international studies, say suppliers, who report that the wearing of protective equipment has increased in the last three years.

There has been an increase in school level players wearing protective headwear, says McCleland. “We have noticed that there has been a significant increase in our junior headgear sales.”

While the number of school and senior level players wearing headgear have increased, fewer players at the elite level wear headgear, says Evert Ferreira of Brand-ID, local distributors of Canterbury.

At school level the wearing of protective gear is purely driven by parents’ safety concerns and at senior level players have jobs and other responsibilities that will make them more cautious, he explains. He believes the decrease in elite players wearing headgear, is more related to pride, as they don’t get recognised off the field if they wear headwear.

He attributes the growth in players, at all levels, wearing protective bodywear to more rugby being played, and players regarding it as a necessity to protect their bodies.

Availability and affordability are part of the reason why more players are wearing protective bodywear, says McCleland. “We have noticed an increase in the number of sports brands producing protective gear. This gives the consumer a wider variety, available at more stores, at more affordable prices,” she explains.

Protective don’t always protect

Although wearing protective gear seems to be a growing trend among South African rugby players, recent studies show that headwear may not always play a protective role in all sports.

The class-action lawsuit in the US involving 4 500 football players who suffered concussion-related injuries, or fear that they might, highlighted the danger of a secondary head injury when wearing a hard helmet. It was found that the repeated impact of the head against the hard surface of a helmet caused neurological trauma, with long-term effects. Last year the NFL agreed to pay $870-m in compensation to players involved in the class-action suit.

Boxing has also identified the danger of repeated impact against the head. In June 2013, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) introduced a rule that prevents male amateur boxers from wearing headgear, as they believe boxers will apply less force when striking an opponent with an unprotected head. The danger that protective headwear can obscure peripheral vision is an additional reason for the ban. Females’ lack of physical strength, which reduces their ability to cause concussion, allows them to still wear headgear.

Helmet safety in cycling

In all cycling races and events across the world, the wearing of a helmet is compulsory. But, while the wearing of a cycling helmet is compulsory on all South African roads, the issue of compelling commuters to wear cycling helmets is hotly debated in the UK and other countries where it is a voluntary decision.

In South Africa, the National Road Traffic Act 93 of 1996 states that no person shall drive, or be a passenger, on a pedal cycle on a public road unless he or she is wearing a protective helmet, which fits him or her properly and of which the chin straps is properly fastened under the chin.

In the UK, US and some European countries opponents of helmet laws, however, argue that the compulsory wearing of cycling helmets by commuters will discourage people from cycling. This will have a detrimental effect on the general health of the population, they argue, as people will become more sedentary.

Correspondents to the British Medical Journal, for example, write that Evidence from Australian states where laws have been enacted to require the use of helmets suggests that the greatest effect of the helmet law was not to encourage cyclists to wear helmets, but to discourage cycling.

Another argument is that road cyclists are more likely to be struck by cars while wearing a helmet. Dr Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist from the University of Bath, captured data of more than 2 500 overtaking motorists in Salisbury and Bristol and found that on average drivers passed 8.5cm closer when the cyclist wore a helmet than when he didn’t.

“From a safety point of view a helmet is designed to absorb the impact of the crash and deflect it away from the skull,” explains Mike Bradley, GM of Cycling SA. “Wearing a helmet may save the cyclist’s life.”

He describes how his life was saved by his cycling helmet when he hit a low hanging tree branch that he did not see.

Cycling helmets have improved over the years and are lighter, cooler and more comfortable to wear, but the way the injury occurs will ultimately determine the severity of a head/neck injury, says Bradley. “A helmet may reduce the severity of accidents, but like safety belts in cars, are designed to only take absorb a certain amount of force.”

There are at least nine different standards for testing cycling helmets to ensure that they protect the wearer. These include the ASTM (formerly American Society for Testing and Materials), Standards Australia/Standards New Zealand, British Standards Institution (BSI), Canadian Standards Association, US Consumer Product Safety Commission, CEN European Standard, Japanese Industrial Standard, Snell Memorial Foundation and Swedish Board for Consumer Policies.

Cycling helmet brands available in South Africa will therefore conform to different approval standards. For example, their bicycle helmets are independently tested and follow the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standard, explains Steve Bowman from Omnico. They do also do further internal testing to ensure that they keep up with the international standard.

On the other hand, De Wet Sports’ helmets follow the European standard EN1078, says Kevin De Wet.

Face protection in hockey

Field hockey manufacturers have for years been developing new technologies for shinpads and protective gear for goalies. Yet, 25% of all injuries sustained during field hockey are to the face and head, reveals data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) — an organisation that safeguards the well-being of American student-athletes.

This prompted the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College in the US to create a prototype mask that offers protection against impact injuries. This face mask is also gaining acceptance in South Africa.

It is compulsory for the goalkeeper to wear a helmet and it is now general practice for defenders to put on a mask at a short corner, explains Shane Schonegevel from OBO SA, distributors of Gryphon.

It is becoming more and more of a requirement, rather than the player’s choice, agrees Dean Gee from SNT Sports. But, he finds that the mask is still not used at masters level.

“The masks are very common at short corners from junior level all the way through to international level,” says Basil Gasparis of TK Sports. “It makes a massive difference in protecting players and good quality masks have saved many players from serious injury at all levels of play.” They currently supply two masks that provide maximum protection with maximum visibility.

They have seen an increase in year to year sales of masks, which might be indicative of an increased awareness among players on safety aspects of the game,” says Charles Painter from Kevro, distributor of Blackheath Hockey.

An increase in safety awareness from school to professional level, has grown the demand for hockey masks, adds Imtiaz Karodia from Solly M Sports.

The advancement in stick technology and increased speed of the game means that players should be wearing masks, advises McCleland. “A faster, harder, game calls for better protection.” She finds that face masks are predominantly used at top schools due to the cost involved as players have to purchase the masks themselves because most schools don’t supply them.

Stormforce also provide a full face mask, which can be used in place of a regular short corner face mask. “We suggest that players use this mask rather than a regular short corner mask as it offers added protection for the sides of the face,” explains McCleland. Their Xpro hockey protective range, which includes shinguards, hockey gloves and facemasks, use their new Xpro padding (above) instead of standard foam.

Baseball and softball helmets

Baseball and softball protective equipment have to pass standards set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) — a non-profit corporation formed in 1969 to develop a performance test standard for football helmets.

All NOCSAE certified helmets must have a permanent logo and warning that states: Do not use this helmet if the shell is cracked or deformed; or if the interior padding is deteriorated.

Severe head or neck injury, including paralysis or death may occur despite using this helmet. No helmet can prevent all head injuries or any neck injuries a player might receive while participating in baseball or softball.

And despite the dire warning, baseball and softball is played by millions of Americans — and in growing numbers across the world.

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