From children’s merry-go-rounds to the Ex-scream Machine Giant Roller Coaster, the California State Fair is returning to the Cal Expo with over 50 carnival rides.
But with amusement park fatalities lingering in recent memory – like when an entire arm of The Fire Ball fell apart at The Ohio State Fair in 2017, killing one and injuring seven – riders may wonder: How safe are these rides?
Fasten your seat belts and lower your lap bars, because as long as you follow safety precautions and listen to fair operators, ride injuries and accidents are few and far between.
Double inspections at the State Fair
In California, both permanent amusement park rides (like those at Six Flags or Disneyland) and portable rides for seasonal carnivals are inspected at least once a year by the Amusement Ride and Tramway Unit of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Investigators will inspect the structure and operation of the ride, review safety, training and maintenance records, and perform an unannounced operational inspection,” wrote Frank Polizzi, the public information officer of the Department of Industrial Relations.
“Any issues with a ride are brought to the owner’s attention and corrected before a permit is issued.”
But government inspections are only carried out after the rides have been fully assembled and ready to operate, and the State Fair hires a third-party contractor to oversee the assembly from start to finish. Barry Schaible, a field representative for Coulter Associates, LLC, says his company works hard to make sure every ride at the State Fair is safe for everybody. They inspect every ride and sometimes ask them to be taken apart for a closer inspection of the machinery.
“We go above and beyond,” said Schaible. “I will sometimes ask fair operators to take things off the ride because we want to see the components inside.”
When a patron receives an injury that requires medical services beyond first aid, the incident is reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
According to inspection reports from the administration, Butler Amusements, Inc., which has been providing ride services for the California State Fair since 2009, has received over a thousand state inspections since 2007.
There have been 16 reports of injuries on Butler Amusements rides in the 10-year span between 2007 and 2017.
Many of them are the results of minor design flaws or misadjustment in safety equipment.
Most recently, at the 2017 Kern County Fair, a child bumped her head on the roof above her seat while riding the Starship 3000. Operators were required to “install adequate padding above the patrons’ seating area” following the event, according to the Department of Industrial Relations.
When a seat belt got stuck or a finger was jammed, Butler Amusements was required to update their operator training manuals and retrain all operators with specific attention to safety details.
Sometimes, rides did malfunction.
In 2011, a metal electrical box cover on the famed Zipper fell off while the ride was in motion. The detached piece hit a woman standing by, who declined medical treatment and remained at the fair in Lompoc.
The most serious injury dates back to 2007, when a 58-year-old man sprained his knee and hip, tore a shoulder ligament, and received a swollen neck after a ride at the Indio Date Festival derailed from its tracks.
Willfully risking ride safety for that extra midair spin is never advised. Two incidents of injuries in the past decade were caused by riders who purposefully changed their position while in motion.
“Pay attention to the rides. Pay attention to the ride signage. Don’t play around,” Schaible said.
Listen to the operator
Every amusement park ride is manufactured with its own safety precautions. Specific regulations may vary depending on the ride.
“It is very important that we follow the ride guidelines,” Schaible said. “We don’t invent that. Individual ride signage comes from the manufacturers.”
The best way to ensure ride safety at the fair is to listen to ride operators, Schaible said.
Mobile amusement ride operators at the State Fair not only maintain the machinery while the fair is in session but are also a part of the assembly process.
“They know what’s best because they set it up,” he said. “It’s safer riding our rides here than you are walking across the street to get to the fair.”