Safety Gear Standards

What guidelines are skate-pad makers following?

With skateboarding’s popularity resulting in a wave of new skateboard parks, both public and private, it’s only natural that interest in protective equipment should grow. For the average street skater, a helmet and pads are about as useful as a pair of Soap shoes. But with many of the new parks requiring protective gear, the demand for helmets and pads is at an all-time high.

The fact that there are no set standards for skateboard-specific safety gear should not be surprising, given the sport’s marginalized place in mainstream society. This has its benefits and drawbacks. One benefit is not having the federal government enforcing a set of regulations handed down by disinterested Washington bureaucrats. But on the other hand, the lack of specific regulations creates an environment of uncertainty and, in the instance of skateboard helmets, a raging philosophical debate.

The helmet debate boils down to how one views the protective needs of a skateboarder. Should a helmet be designed to protect against big impacts? Or do most skaters need protection from scrapes and minor impacts? How you answer that question depends on how you look at skateboarding.

Traditional skateboard helmets are made to withstand multiple impacts, and are made with a hard but pliable plastic shell lined with foam padding. These helmets have been used by skaters for over twenty years┬┐they’re flexible and don’t offer the structural support of the newer type, the hard-foam helmets. These newer helmets also feature plastic shells and a soft-foam padding, but between the plastic shell and the padding is a hard-foam shell that makes the helmet more rigid. Like the traditional hard-foam bicycle helmet, this type of skateboard helmet offers more structural support, but is made to be replaced after a significant impact.

If you are of the opinion that the biggest threat to a skater’s cranial safety is abrasions or minor dings from a fall to the head, then the multiple-impact type helmet is for you. The Pro-Tec version of this type of helmet has been the standard since the late 70s. Insole-maker S-One, with the encouragement of their team, has crossed over to create a multiple-impact helmet of its own that features a plastic shell, the impact-dampening material used in their insoles, a layer of soft-foam padding, and a terry liner.

The hard-foam inner shell of single-impact helmets are made from EPS (Ethyl Poly Styrene), which is designed to crush on impact, dispersing the shock of an impact over an area of the helmet around the point of contact. As Bob Denike of NHS puts it, the helmet cracks so your head doesn’t. NHS manufactures and distributes the popular TSG line of safety gear, including a single-impact helmet.

After deciding which type best suits a skater’s needs, most manufacturers look to an existing standard to follow in the design and manufacturing of their helmets. There are a plethora of helmet-safety standards, including ASTM, SNELL, ANSI, CPSC, and the European CE seal.

Both S-One and all but one of Pro-Tec’s helmets have been designed to meet the CE multiple-impact helmet standard, CE 1385. This can be a little confusing because it’s not specific to skateboarding.

Standards for single-impact helmets come from the bike world. All five of the rating organizations listed above have similar single-impact standards for bike enthusiasts. Denike says that of the group, the CPSC standard best fits the needs of skaters, so NHS followed those guidelines in developing the TSG single-impact helmet. The CPSC regulations regarding bicycle-helmet construction are available from cpsc.gov. Another reason TSG used the existing CPSC bike standard in constructing a skate helmet was to offer customers one helmet that could be used for all of their activities. The TSG single-impact helmet also meets CE’s standard for bike helmets.

How a company receives these various certifications differs for each organization. For instance, the CPSC, a U.S. government agency, does not require manufacturers to submit samples to CPSC test centers. Rather, it relies on the manufacturers to have the helmets tested and to regulate themselves. However, the CPSC does randomly test helmets, and imposes penalties for companies whose helmets are marked with the CPSC certification, but fail to meet the standard.

In contrast, in order to receive CE certification, the manufacturer is required to send several samples of the helmets to CE test centers in Europe, where CE technicians perform the tests. Once a product receives certification, the manufacturer is cleared to import the helmets. Regardless of whether it is a single- or multiple-impact helmet, receiving CE certification is crucial for sales outside of the U.S. As Jake Brandman of Pro-Tec puts it, almost all developed nations besides the United States require that helmets sold there have the CE certification.

As for other protective equipment designed for skateboarding, like elbow- and kneepads, there is no required U.S.-government safety standard. “Wild” Bill Walker of Pro Designed exemplifies the self-imposed standard that reputable skateboard-safety-gear makers adhere to; he’s been making protective gear since 1985 using only the standards articulated by the pro riders. Calling upon his experience in the upholstery business, Walker has integrated his knowledge of fabrics and construction with input from skateboarders, arriving at a form that was dictated by function. There is, however, a general CE standard for elbow and kneepads. But as with helmets, there is no skate-specific CE pad standard.

Helmets, elbowpads, and kneepads protect the most vulnerable parts of the body, so the careful research that goes into developing them should apply to stocking and recommending them to customers. Protective equipment differs from regular skateboard products in that your consumers rely on the equipment to protect them when they fall. Thus, there may be greater liability associated with the manufacturing and sale of helmets and pads compared to other skateboard products.

Regardless of where you sit in the stream of commerce (manufacturer, distributor or retailer), make sure the products you design, manufacture, or carry are built to meet the needs of skaters. Retailers can protect themselves by verifying that the manufacturers of the safety gear they stock carry insurance covering product liability. Should they be involved in product-liability litigation involving an insured manufacturer, it’s less likely that the retailer will ultimately be held responsible.

Matthew Miller is an attorney-at-law in Solana Beach, California. He can be reached at: (858) 259-6969.