Saturday 21 September 2019

Modified helmets are putting hurlers at serious risk

Players invalidate their insurance by tampering with hurling headgear

Ronan Curran during his playing days: ‘The whole safety area has to be looked into’. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Ronan Curran during his playing days: ‘The whole safety area has to be looked into’. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

The former Cork All-Ireland winner Ronan Curran has said that safety standards for helmets are not sufficiently monitored and enforced and that as many as half the helmets in circulation may not be meeting current safety criteria.

Studies and anecdotal evidence have shown that helmets are often modified by players after purchase, notably the face guard feature, which renders them unsafe. The GAA has a firm line on any tampering and warns that modified helmets can invalidate insurance and injury claims.

Since the start of 2010 all players have been required to wear helmets during matches and training. The GAA was slow to make wearing helmets compulsory, with a breakthrough in 2005 when those aged less than 18 were required to wear them. In 2007 the rule was expanded to include players playing under 21 and it became mandatory for all ages three years later.

Many hurlers were unhappy with the change in rule, preferring to play bare-headed or at least have the option of taking the helmet off during play. Michael Kavanagh of Kilkenny became the last outfield player not to wear a helmet in an All-Ireland senior hurling final in 2009, signalling the dawn of a new era when players would become less recognisable.

While players have had to comply with the helmet rules, a significant percentage either acquire helmets which are modified or that are tampered with after sale.

The GAA has set down in rule that it is the duty and responsibility of the individual player to wear a helmet with a facial guard that "meets the standard set out in IS:355 . . . as determined by the National Safety Authority of Ireland (NSAI). Such helmets shall not be modified from their original manufactured state in any circumstances."

Curran is employed by one of the manufacturers of hurling helmets, Mycro. He lists familiar defects, including not enough room between the player's face and the guard, increasing the injury risk, and a gap and insufficient protection above the forehead, where the hurl can encroach. Many helmets he feels would not pass the impact tests which are designed to determine resistance capability from heavy blows.

"The whole safety area has to be looked into anyway, I have been spouting on about it for years," says Curran. "There are plenty of helmets out there that don't pass the safety standards. We've had some scares and I have said it for years - it is going to take a death for this to be properly enforced."

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Curran was asked about the incidences of ear injuries, a part of the head which is still unprotected. "The thing about the ears is that in the safety standard it is not a requirement to protect the ears basically. We do offer a kind of guard that give protection to the ears but players don't tend to go for them. You nearly need to protect the players from themselves, as you know half them would not wear any helmet if they got away with it. We give them the option but we don't give it in the standard option because we would not sell any helmets."

A report published last April found that almost one third of hurlers admitted to modifying their helmet in contravention of GAA regulations, potentially increasing their injury risk. A special motion to congress in November 2013 removed liability from the GAA should a player wearing a modified helmet sustain an injury.

In a research project, faceguard replacement was found to be the most common modification (80 per cent), followed by removal of bars (13 per cent), and bending of the bars on the faceguard.

The research recommended a rule change "such as mandatory checks on helmets and faceguards by referees prior to matches, to ensure no modifications have been completed should be introduced, similar to the boots check completed in soccer."

The study, by the School of Health and Human Performance, Dublin City University, and the Department of Sport and Health Sciences, Athlone Institute of Technology, was the first to examine the extent of modifications in hurling and camogie since helmets became mandatory.

It found that players appeared more swayed by appearance than safety considerations when choosing their helmet brand: two in five were influenced by appearance while just 1.6 per cent cited safety as the main reason for their choice. Price was a factor for one in five.

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