Fair amusement rides safe, regularly inspected, officials say
Cherish Roberts, left, and her daughter Aavry, ride Speed, the newest thrill ride among Thomas Carnival rides at MontanaFair on Friday, August 10, 2012.
By Cindy Uken
Aug 12, 2012
One of thrill seekers’ instant favorites at MontanaFair this year is bound to be an all-new adventure ride, Speed. It will hurl riders for a loop as it swings around 360 degrees, doing up to 13 revolutions per minute.
The cash-only ride made its debut at the Montana State Fair in Great Falls earlier this month and proved popular among fairgoers. It’s known in the industry as an “extreme ride.”
And making a return engagement to the midway are the ever-popular Cliffhanger, Ejection Seat and Pharoah’s Fury, which promise plunging drops, sharp twists and electrifying turns.
They can be intoxicating. But are they safe? Whose responsibility is it to ensure the amusement park rides are properly assembled, maintained and operated? It all depends on which state’s midway you’re visiting.
Thomas Carnival, which tours 11 states between February and November, relies on 150 workers to assemble amusement rides for the 2012 MontanaFair. Crews set up rides Wednesday at MetraPark before Friday’s fair opening.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates how amusement rides are manufactured. There is no federal oversight over how they are set up, maintained and operated. That job falls to the states, and there is a marked difference among them.
John Hanschen, co-owner and president of Thomas Carnival, says the 34 amusement rides that will be the centerpiece of the midway at the 2012 MontanaFair can be assembled in 20 “hard push” hours.
Twenty-four states have comprehensive government inspection and accident investigation programs. Eleven have minimum inspection and insurance requirements with oversight falling to the private sector. Nine states have partial oversight.
Montana is one of six states that have no regulations on amusement rides. The others are Alabama, Mississippi, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Manufacturers, ride owners and operators and insurance carriers handle safety as they see fit. All consumer safety information is privately held. No government agency is empowered to track equipment operating in the state, inspect rides, accidents, audit safety records, or shut down unsafe rides.
So the question remains: Are the rides on MontanaFair’s midway safe? Whose responsibility is it to ensure they are properly assembled, maintained and operated given that they will provide an estimated 10 million rides this season?
Fair goers line up for the Zipper Thomas Carnival ride at MontanaFair on Friday, August 10, 2012.
Everybody inspects,” said John Hanschen, co-owner and president of Thomas Carnival, which is in its 33rd year of contracting with MontanaFair for the midway amusement rides. “You may not call him an inspector, but by God he’s inspecting. Inspecting is everybody’s responsibility.”
Hanschen, 61, is also a certified inspector.
"To say there is no regulation is a misnomer, Hanschen said. As the 85-year-old carnival pulled into town last week, it was greeted with a surprise visit from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA’s mission is to help employers and employees reduce on-the-job injuries, illnesses and deaths. Hanschen said he did not know what prompted the visit. A representative from the Billings OSHA office confirmed that an “inspection has been opened,” but would not say what prompted it.
“A lot of government oversight is legitimate,” Hanschen said. “Where there is a state inspection, we embrace it. Where there isn’t, it’s still our job.”
Fair goers fill the carnival at MontanaFair on Friday, August 10, 2012.
The carnival, which this year boasts 34 attractions, crisscrosses an 11-state area between February and November. The 5 million pounds’ worth of amusement rides are torn down and re-assembled as they move from state to state in 35 travel trailers and bunk houses with the help of 150 employees. Though some of the employees are new to the circuit, most are veterans of the carnival trade. Their experience ranges from five years to 36 years.
Thomas Carnival maintains a winter quarters in Austin, Texas, where annual maintenance is performed. A full-service maintenance shop is carried on the road, full of tools and spare parts.
When the carnival moves into town, the amusement rides resemble a canister of Tinker Toys or Legos with an insert of instructions that reads, “Assembly required.” It takes the crew about 20 “hard-push” hours to erect the assortment of rides. Each ride comes with a training manual and inspection manual. Each operator is trained in how to operate and inspect the respective rides, which Hanschen described as “complex pieces of machinery.” Before each ride is activated, operators perform a checklist much like pilots do before takeoff. Written reports document the inspections.
Fair goers ride Thomas Carnival rides at MontanaFair on Friday, August 10, 2012.
In moving, assembling and operating that much equipment, there is always the possibility of something going wrong. Equipment failure accounts for only 4 percent of all ride-related accidents reported to state regulatory agencies, according to Saferparks, a California group that works to improve the safety of amusement park rides and attractions.
“There are incidents all of the time,” Hanschen said. “Over the years, we’ve been lucky, but the potential is always there. You live by the manuals and common sense. You just don’t want anyone hurt.”
Before gates opened to the midway Friday, local officials, which have included the county’s risk manager, MontanaFair managers, county commissioners and even a representative of the fire marshal’s office, accompanied the carnival manager for a final inspection.
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