By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
Both the House and Senate agriculture committees will convene public hearings to examine the state’s strategy for inspecting amusement park rides, a system that relies almost exclusively on inspectors either directly employed by the ride operators or hired by them.
The state Agriculture Department has just four government inspectors to monitor rides at every amusement park, carnival and fair in Pennsylvania. With 9,300 rides in operation in the state, almost all the inspections are made by the operators and the state inspectors focus on auditing their efforts.
Concerns about the ride inspection program were first raised by the Pittsburgh-based PublicSource. They examined inspection records for amusement parks across the commonwealth and found numerous cases where inspection records were missing.
But the same inspection program that monitors permanent amusement parks is also tasked with tracking the safety of equipment at traveling carnival rides that set up for a few days in one location then move along from place to place, in and out of the state over the summer and fall.
Festivals and fairs present other challenges. Typically, the event organizers don’t hire the ride inspectors, each ride vendor gets their own.
A Meadville Tribune review of the inspections at county fairs found that, in some cases, even when inspectors checked rides there is no paperwork to document it. In other cases, inspectors apparently didn’t discover until after the fair was over that some small ride vendors hadn’t bothered to hire inspectors to check their equipment. In those cases, there is little that the Department of Agriculture can do after the fact. The law doesn’t provide the agency with the teeth to penalize vendors unless the state can prove a pattern of illegal conduct, said Nicole Bucher, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman.
At traveling carnivals, the rides are inspected each time they are set up. But just the process of setting up the rides can present hazards. Government records show that an inspector found that kiddie rides at a fair in Monroe County has been set up too close to power lines.
Walt Remmert, director of the bureau of ride inspections, said that the four “quality assurance” inspectors on the Department of Agriculture payroll divide the commonwealth into quarters and travel from town to town like any traveling business professional.
There are roughly 800 amusement ride operators, so each inspector has about 200 to keep track of. The inspectors quickly learn which operators need careful scrutiny and which tend to carefully police themselves, Rummert said.
Each year more than 5.2 million visitors attend the state’s 109 fairs and millions more attend carnivals.
State inspectors are expected to visit every community fair in their region, Rummert said. Those visits are mainly to audit the work of the inspectors hired by the carnival ride operators. The agriculture department staff does not attempt to inspect every ride at the festival, he said.
Inspectors at the 2012 Cambria County, Crawford County and Mercer County Grange fairs checked a total of 69 rides and documented no problems.
At the Lawrence County Fair, inspectors checked 12 rides and documented just one problem, a loose seat on the Caterpillar ride.
At the Bloomsburg Fair, inspectors found no problems at 63 rides operated by the main carnival vendor, Reithoffer Shows, based in Bradenton, Fla. The inspectors documented concerns with 20 rides, all of which were corrected, according to records.
Rummert said one of the issues that sometimes arises is that ride companies from out-of-state may come to fairs in Pennsylvania and not immediately adjust to safety standards here. At the Bloomsburg Fair inspection, a number of the documented issues included failing to post signs or stickers. But there were other problems noted, including a loose railing at the top of a slide.
No paper records exist of the inspections for the Beaver Community Fair in Snyder County and the Montour-Delong Fair in Montour County, said Bucher. The agency provided a spreadsheet showing that an inspector logged into the state’s inspection system and entered information indicating that rides at those fairs had been checked. But the system currently does not produce a formal report comparable to the reports completed by inspectors who fill them out on paper.
“That’s one of the issues we are looking at,” Bucher said.
The agency is working to develop an online database of inspection records to make the records more accessible to the public.
State Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Lawrence County, said there will be a joint hearing of both the Senate and House committees, or they will convene separately. But lawmakers in both chambers want answers from the Department of Agriculture, Vogel said.
Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cnhipa.
There were six accidents in which a total of seven people were hurt due to mechanical malfunctions on amusement park, carnival or water park rides in 2012. The last fatal accident involving a carnival ride in Pennsylvania was in 2001.
There were 292 accidents in which people were injured at amusement parks, carnivals, water parks or extreme sports venues at attractions like climbing walls.
In 209 of those incidents, the victim was at fault, according to investigators. In 76 cases, the ride operator was to blame.
Source: Department of Agriculture