A “Hair Hang Act” performance during a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show on May 4 in Providence, R.I. took a disastrous turn when the apparatus the performers were hanging from suddenly fell to the ground. An investigation by OSHA determined the incident occurred because the carabiner used to support the performers failed from being improperly loaded.
The failure resulted in the eight employees performing the act falling more than 15 feet to the ground and sustaining serious injuries. A ninth employee, working on the ground, was struck by falling employees.
“This catastrophic failure by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clearly demonstrates that the circus industry needs a systematic design approach for the structures used in performances – approaches that are developed, evaluated and inspected by professional engineers,” said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “While the $7,000 penalty is the maximum allowable by law, we can never put a price on the impact this event had on these workers and their families. Employers must take steps to ensure this does not happen again.”
In violation of industry practice and the carabiner manufacturer’s instructions, the company improperly loaded the carabiner by attaching two pear-shaped steel rings to the bottom of the carabiner, with each steel ring having three wire cables running from it to the corners of the rigging apparatus. This created a tri-axial loading situation as opposed to the proper loading situation where the carabiner is loaded only at two points along its major axis. This improper manner of loading resulted in the carabiner being overloaded, causing the carabiner to fail and having all eight employees attached to the rigging fall to the ground.
Jeffrey Erskine, acting deputy regional administrator in OSHA’s New England regional office, commented, “Equipment failures can lead to tragic results. To prevent these types of incidents, employers need to not only ensure that the right equipment is being used, but also that it is being used properly. The safety and well-being of employees depend on it.”
As a result of its findings, OSHA has cited Feld Entertainment Inc., doing business as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, for one serious safety violation with a proposed penalty of $7,000, the maximum fine allowed by law. A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.
Feld Entertainment, already under fire from animal rights advocates who stage protests in many of the cities the circus performs, has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.