COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Fire Ball ride was inspected multiple times at the Ohio State Fair before an accident flung passengers out of their seats mid-air, killing one man and injuring seven other people on Wednesday.
The fatality has brought attention the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s amusement ride inspectors, who signed off on the Fire Ball earlier that day.
The state inspects twice the number of rides and attractions today as it did 15 years ago, but the number of inspectors doing the job has stayed about the same.
Ohio established its ride inspection program with a 1984 law prompted in part by a Plain Dealer investigation into ride safety. The law instated permanent inspectors, established an amusement ride advisory board and, for the first time, required fixed amusement rides to be inspected.
Former state Rep. Marc Guthrie, who sponsored Ohio’s two major amusement ride safety laws, said he was sad to see Wednesday’s incident.
“I think the law has worked for many years and I think generally Ohio’s amusement rides are very safe and safer than they would have been without the law,” Guthrie said.
But Guthrie was concerned about inspector staffing levels that haven’t increased in the past 20 years and continued industry influence on safety regulations.
Staffing and spending
In 2001, the ride inspection division had 11 employees and averaged 2,000 inspections annually.
Department Director David Daniels said Wednesday the department now oversees about 4,300 pieces of amusement equipment including traveling attractions, permanent park rides, water slides and inflatable structures. It issued permits to 3,762 amusement rides in 2015.
The department employs eight inspectors and a chief inspector, according to state records.
Three of the four inspectors who signed off on the Fire Ball’s Wednesday inspection have worked for the department for at least five years.
The Department of Agriculture declined to answer questions Friday about its ride inspection staffing and training. In a statement, the department said new inspectors undergo at least one year of training before inspecting rides on their own and multiple employees inspect each ride. Several staff members are accredited instructors for the National Amusement Ride Safety Organization.
“The safety of guests and visitors to Ohio’s amusement parks, fairs and rides is the department’s top priority. The training of inspectors is a critical strength of the department’s program,” the statement said.
The inspection program runs on fees collected for licenses, annual inspections, reinspections and fines from ride operators — more rides mean more revenue. The department spends about $1.4 million on the program and plans to use an expected $200,000 revenue boost on IT improvements, according to the agency’s latest budget request.
Standards and staffing vary by state
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission monitors mobile rides at fairs and carnivals but does not perform inspections.
There are no federally mandated standards for amusement rides, creating a range of state regulations and enforcement levels. At one end, states such as Ohio have state-funded inspection programs that employ full-time inspectors. At the other, states such as Alabama and Iowa have little oversight. Others use third-party inspectors.
Pennsylvania can pull inspectors from a pool of more than 1,400 independent contractors to inspect more than 10,000 rides a year. Contractors have to prove experience or training, pass a state-issued test and complete continuing education hours to maintain their state licensure.
West Virginia has hired private contractors to inspect rides since 2005.
Ohio considered privatizing its inspections in 1992. Guthrie fought the change then and said that shouldn’t change now.
“You don’t want a situation where the industry has too much influence,” Guthrie said. “You don’t want the fox watching the chicken coop.”
Standards have improved
While Ohio’s laws haven’t significantly changed over the years, the standards and culture of safety in the industry have evolved, said Robert Johnson, president of carnival trade association Outdoor Amusement Business Association.
In the 1980s, states sought more oversight for amusement rides. The industry realized it was in its best interest to lead efforts for national standards with the American Society for Testing and Materials, a national group that brings stakeholders together to set voluntary guidelines for a variety of products and services.
The amusement industry caused many delays in the process, according to Plain Dealer reports at the time.
“That was then, this is now,” Johnson said. “Certainly, the quality control among the manufacturer and designers, the engineers, the adherence to these standards by the ride owners and operators have all helped to promote a higher patron safety.”
Johnson said Ohio, which requires compliance with ASTM standards, has one of the best state inspection programs.
In 1992, Ohio passed a “rider responsibility law” establishing fines for ride patrons who ignore safety signs or warnings. It also allowed the state to hire consultants to investigate amusement ride accidents.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol is leading an investigation into Wednesday’s incident with the agriculture department and Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The agency was found liable for the 2003 death of an eight-year-old boy electrocuted on a bumper car ride at the Lake County Fair. The judge cited “negligent inspection” by state inspectors.