Extent of school sports injuries masked by lack of data (NSW)


Five students died playing sport at NSW schools over the past decade. Another 15 suffered spinal injuries, loss of mental capacity or other permanent impairments, official data shows.

Hundreds more school sports injuries go unchecked each year, triggering claims that poor surveillance is hampering efforts to make sports safer for players of all ages.

Data compiled by the NSW Sporting Injuries Committee for the Herald shows two student deaths relating to school sport last financial year, one involving rugby union and the other futsal.

In the past decade, students have died after skiing, snowboarding and cross-country running. One became a paraplegic after a swimming accident and school rugby league players variously suffered loss of limb use, vision and mental capacity. One rugby union player became a quadriplegic and another suffered a ruptured spleen.

Some incidents stemmed from existing conditions but an exact breakdown was not available. The records show 59 students have died or been permanently impaired while playing sport at NSW schools since 1984.

However, the committee only deals with “catastrophic” incidents leading to compensation. Many other school sports injuries each year are not centrally recorded.

Neither the NSW Education Department nor the private school sector systematically monitor sports or other injuries, leaving individual schools to collect and manage reports.

The All Saints Catholic Boys College in Liverpool is among 148 Catholic schools in Sydney to start centrally reporting all school injuries later this year.

A leading sports physician and the Sydney Roosters’ team doctor, John Orchard, said schools’ ad hoc approaches reflected a shortfall in injury reporting in all sport settings, which obscures the public health burden and thwarts prevention efforts.

A professor of injury research at Monash University, Caroline Finch, said while the benefits of sport are widely accepted to outweigh the risks, 90 per cent of injuries could be avoided or minimised. A study in Victoria by Dr Finch showed that the number of sports injuries treated in hospital emergency departments had almost doubled since 2002, in contrast to a stabilised rate of road accident injuries.

One million Australians are injured playing sport each year, costing taxpayers an estimated $1.65 billion. In New Zealand, a national registry linked to a compensation scheme has collated data on sport injuries for more than two decades.

A spokesman for the federal Sports Minister, Mark Arbib, said the government did not keep sports injury data, and that a national register “may place an excessive burden and red tape” on sporting groups. He cited federal measures to prevent sports injuries, but did not say whether they had cut injury rates.

Ben Robertson only hazily recalls the moment a maul collapsed during a school rugby match in 1996, forcing his legs over his head and crushing his spinal cord as bodies piled on top of him. But he remembers opening his eyes on a Mosman oval, paralysed from the chest down.

“I woke up and I was staring at the sky. My ears were ringing and I instantly knew what had happened, because I couldn’t move.”

Mr Robertson, 33, of Cammeray, was left a complete quadriplegic. He has limited arm and wrist movement and works two days a week as a graphic designer, but relies on full-time carers to complete even basic tasks.

“My morning routine is 2½ hours. People come in to get me up, shower, and dress me.”

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