Before fairgoers spin, twist and flip at the Western Carolina and the Georgia-Carolina state fairs opening in Aiken and Augusta this week, somebody has to make sure carnival rides are safe.
Georgia and South Carolina regulations require state inspectors to check the nuts, bolts, safety belts and other ride mechanics before a fair opens. Then, most carnival companies – including Strates Shows Inc. and Reithoffer Shows Inc., the operators of the Augusta and Aiken fairs, respectively – make daily inspections.
Safety records for carnival companies, however, are difficult to find. No federal regulations require national safety reports. The Consumer Product Safety Commission monitors amusement ride injuries but the agency was closed this week because of the government shutdown.
The South Carolina Labor Department requires amusement ride owners to report accidents resulting in serious injury, a spokeswoman said. The records, kept for seven years, did not have any reports of serious injury for Reithoffer Shows or Strates Shows.
Georgia’s Office of Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner took over carnival inspections from the state labor department about 15 months ago. Inspections for Strates Shows for 2009 to 2012 turned up issues on rides such as brakes and seat belts that needed replacing, defective lap bars, missing pins and broken safety cables. Many of the rides had no problems, and most issues were corrected on the same day.
Georgia also requires reports on serious injuries requiring overnight hospitalization or death. None were found on Strates Shows for its operations in Georgia since 2009.
In 2006, a Tubman Middle School eighth-grader suffered severe head injuries after being thrown from a ride at the Georgia-Carolina fair. An investigation found that the girl panicked and tried, while the ride was in motion, to slip under a safety bar. The ride was being operated by Dreamland Amusements, a subcontractor for Strates Shows.
The Georgia Labor Department reported that there “appeared to be no failure in equipment or safety features,” according to The Augusta Chronicle archives.
The Outdoor Amusement Business Association estimates that 300 million rides are given annually on mobile amusement rides. Injuries, especially severe injuries, occur very infrequently, said Robert Johnson, president of the association.
“They know if they have a rash of incidents and are not taking care of rides properly, their insurance companies will not insure them,” Johnson said.
“The last thing any ride owner wants is someone to get hurt on their rides,” he said. “It’s not good for publicity. It’s not good for safety. And, it’s not good for their insurance.”
In Georgia, carnival operators must have at least $1 million bodily liability insurance. South Carolina requires $500,000.
Jeff Alberts, safety supervisor for Reithoffer Shows, said the frequency by which rides are set up and inspected helps prevent safety lapses, although he acknowledged that injuries have happened. The rides pass inspections in several states annually.
“Our maintenance department never stops,” he said.
The most common fixes are frayed seat belts and roller coaster wheels that must be changed about every seven days, Albert said.
Johnny Galler, safety manager for Strates Shows, said inspections are unique to each ride and follow a manufacturer’s guide. Daily inspections and the state’s inspection report are kept in a fact book that tells the ride’s history, he said.
“It’s a routine,” Galler said. “I do it every single 10 days.”