Michael and Kristy LeRoux of Columbia were visiting the South Carolina State Fair on Friday, enjoying a beautiful fall afternoon on the second day of the fair’s 12-day run.
Michael, a defense department employee at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, had purchased $30 wristbands for each of their three daughters, Jillian, 15, Katherine, 11, and Hannah, 8, allowing them unlimited rides. But the family was shying away from the larger, scarier thrill rides in favor of more low-impact fun.
“I do a risk assessment,” Michael said. “I look at the complexity of the ride. These things have been taken up and down and up and down. That raises the chances that something could go wrong.”
Thousands of children are hurt each year on rides in amusement parks, traveling shows, malls and arcades, according to a study by the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. The study, released in 2013, used data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission from 1990 to 2010, the most recent available.
4,500 children under the age of 18 treated in hospitals annually for amusement ride injuries
It showed about 4,500 children under the age of 18 were treated in hospitals for amusement ride injuries annually. And from May through September – fair season – 20 children or teens are treated in emergency rooms each day for amusement ride-related injuries.
The most common causes (31.7 percent) of injuries were falling in, off, on or against a ride. The most common type of injuries were bumps and bruises at 29 percent.
Because of sharp, jarring turns on roller coasters and spinning rides, head and neck injuries were the most common body parts affected at 28 percent.
“The overall percentage of injuries requiring hospitalization or observation was low, suggesting that serious injuries are relatively rare,” the study concluded. “However, during the summer months, May – September, there is an amusement ride-related injury that is serious enough to require hospitalization once every three days on average.”
‘Safety is paramount’
Concerns were heightened in August when three accidents occurred in one week:
▪ On Aug. 7, a 10-year-old boy was killed and two women were injured while riding a water slide in Kansas billed as the world’s tallest. That happened at a water park called Schlitterbahn in Kansas City.
▪ On Aug. 8, three girls, ages 6, 10 and 16, fell three stories but survived when a Ferris wheel basket overturned at a county fair in Tennessee. The Ferris wheel was operated by a company called Family Attractions LLC of Valdosta, Ga.
▪ On Aug. 11, a 3-year-old boy was hospitalized after falling out of a roller coaster at an amusement park in Pennsylvania.
Those incidents and the public fallout from them do not go unnoticed by officials of the company that provides rides for the S.C. State Fair, North American Midway Entertainment, which bills itself as the world’s largest traveling amusement company.
15 million fair-goers a year hosted by North American Midway Entertainment
Scooter Korek, spokesman for North American Midway, said a serious injury on one of their rides could be crippling for their business, which entertains 15 million fair-goers a year. He compared it with food poisoning at a restaurant.
“That restaurant won’t last very long,” he said. “Safety is paramount to everything we do; it’s our No. 1 priority.”
Korek noted the company’s 200 or so ride operators have high levels of training, beginning as attendants and graduating to operator. And the company demands a high level of professionalism, from not smoking on the midway to wearing identical polo shirts.
“We wanted to change the image of a carnival worker,” he said. “We want to have the look of a traveling amusement park.”
Since fair season started in March, Korek said, the rides have been inspected in Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina in the United States, and Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario in Canada .
“That’s a whole bunch of different eyes and a whole bunch of different methodologies everywhere we go,” he said.
But there is danger.
In 2014 in Michigan, two children were injured on a North American Midway Ferris wheel when they fell about 15 feet, according to media reports. Authorities speculated the accident might have occurred because one of the children carried crutches onto the ride.
The ride was reopened after inspection.
North American Midway has run the S.C. State Fair for 12 years without a serious incident, according to fair officials.
A study of inspection records for the past three years by The State newspaper show only minor adjustments or repairs were required by state inspectors: Adjustments of ride speeds, a frayed safety belt here and there, the occasional sticky safety bar, malfunctioning smoke alarms – all corrected before the fair opened.
On Wednesday during a pre-opening meeting at the South Carolina Fairgrounds, North American Midway general manager Tony Diaz, along with officials of the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, reminded the 200 or so ride operators that their first order of business is protecting riders and themselves.
“Be aware,” he said.” The kids on these rides are happy, excited and are looking up, not watching what they are doing. There will be trips and falls. We want to prevent those trips and falls.”
Also at the safety meeting, State Fair General Manger Gary Goodman noted “a long record of fair safety” and announced the company and the fair have extended their partnership for another three years.
“We’ve had a great association with North American Midway for a long time,” he said.
No common standards
Nationwide, state regulations on ride inspections vary widely. South Carolina is among the most stringent, records show.
Four states – Arizona, Montana, Vermont and Wyoming – as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have no state requirements whatsoever, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission..
Three states – Idaho, Iowa and Minnesota – require only electrical inspections, while six states let local counties or cities set the standards.
The vast majority – including South Carolina and neighboring North Carolina and Georgia – require some mix of inspections by state inspectors, certified third party inspectors or a combination of both.
A coordinated national system would help us prevent amusement ride-related injuries
Center for Injury Research and Policy of Nationwide Children’s Hospital
However, Georgia requires only one annual inspection of each ride by a state inspector when the ride enters the state, no matter how many fairs it might work in that year, said Glenn Allen, spokesman for the Georgia Office of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner. Georgia also requires no set-up inspections or daily inspections.
In North Carolina all inspections are done by state employees. That includes semi-annual inspections, inspections on set up, operations inspections, and unannounced inspections.
“We don’t accept third party inspections,” said Tommy Petty, deputy chief with the N.C. Department of Labor Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau.
The Nationwide Children's Hospital study called for more standardized inspections.
“Although the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has jurisdiction over mobile rides, regulation of fixed-site rides is currently left to state or local governments, leading to a fragmented system,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. Gary Smith. “A coordinated national system would help us prevent amusement ride-related injuries through better injury surveillance and more consistent enforcement of standards.”
‘A higher level of due diligence’
In South Carolina, third party inspectors, who are contractors licensed by a national certification board, conduct inspections at the start of each fair. North American Midway pays for those inspections.
State law also requires all amusement devices to be inspected annually by the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Those state auditors, who are also inspectors licensed by the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, also conduct inspections prior to the opening of each of the state’s 14 major fairs, said Duane Scott, the administrator of the S.C. Office of Elevators and Amusements Rides.
“We randomly select particular rides,” he said. “Particularly what we call major, spectacular rides or rides that lift little kids in the air.”
The inspection process doesn’t end when the fair opens. It is continuous
Tony Diaz, North American Midway Entertainment general manager
Also, State Fair officials provide an additional, non-mandated inspection of each ride prior to opening to further ensure safety.
“They are on the grounds looking at things all the time,” Goodman said. “And we are in constant communication with other fairs that contract with the same carnival.”
In addition, carnival companies conduct their own inspections, often overlapped by inspections required by their insurers.
“The operators themselves inspect the rides every day,” said Diaz of North American Midway. “It’s the most important thing we do. The inspection process doesn’t end when the fair opens. It is continuous.”
For the LeRoux family of Columbia, who were enjoying the fair on Friday, the professionalism of the company and the reputation of the State Fair, was appreciated.
“We just go to the state fairs, not the small ones,” Michael said. “I think there is a higher level of due diligence.”
State inspection requirements
None: Arizona, District of Columbia, Montana, Puerto Rico, Vermont, Wyoming.
Electrical only: Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota
Local determination: Alabama, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah
State or third party inspectors: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin.
SOURCE: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
Safety tips for amusement rides
▪ Always follow all posted height, age, weight and health restrictions.
▪ Make sure to follow any special seating order and/or loading instructions.
▪ Always use safety equipment such as seat belts and safety bars.
▪ Keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times.
▪ Follow all instructions of the ride operators.
▪ Check each ride for proper height requirements.
▪ Do not remove safety guards or belts while the ride is in operation.
▪ Do not stand up, rock or swing in rides.
▪ Stay seated until the ride comes to a complete stop.
▪ Some rides might have rapidly changing forces – physically or mentally challenged guests or those who are pregnant or have other health conditions might find these rides unsuitable.
▪ Know your child. If you don’t think he/she will be able to follow the rules, keep him/her off the ride.
▪ Trust your instincts. If you are worried about the safety of the ride, choose a different activity.
SOURCE: S.C. State Fair, The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital