Step right up: Circus and fair safety in the spotlight

Bizarre, Consumer protection, Crime, Injury, Safety

Circuses, carnivals and fairs are summertime staples. Unfortunately, performers put themselves at risk every time they wow the crowd with death-defying stunts, and carnival-goers face dangers themselves from unsafe rides and unsanitary food.

Performers injured in ‘human chandelier’ act highlight dangers

Circus acts are dangerous. Accidents are rare, but when they do occur, they can be devastating. In May, eight Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performers were injured when they fell 25 to 35 feet to the floor while attempting a stunt known as the human chandelier. All eight of the performers sustained injuries, including broken bones. They have announced they will sue.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversees safety in workplaces, including circuses, and investigates accidents after the fact. OSHA is currently investigating the human chandelier accident to determine whether a faulty metal carabiner was the cause.

OSHA investigated and ultimately fined Cirque du Soliel over $25,000 for the death of one of its acrobats last June. The agency did not investigate the 2004 death of a Ringling Bros. aerial artist who fell while performing an act with scarves, citing the inherent risks of the work.

It is those inherent risks that make insuring such performers difficult. Many performers, from fire-eaters to acrobats, purchase their own performance insurance, but the number of companies willing to insure workers in high-risk occupations is small. Some performers also sign waivers of liability and assumption of risk in order to work, making it difficult for them to successfully sue in the event of an accident.

Not all states inspect carnival rides 

The danger does not apply to high-risk entertainers alone; safety concerns extend to the people and families who visit amusement parks and traveling carnivals each year. Although the overall risk of accident per rider is small, thousands of people nonetheless end up in the hospital every year with injuries from roller coasters and other rides.

State governments are responsible for overseeing the safety of carnival rides, and while some inspect the rides each time they are set up in a new location, other states inspect rides just once a year, and some do not carry out inspections at all.

Carnival and fair-goers who are injured can bring a lawsuit against the event’s operators. Last year, a North Carolina family sued for $25,000 after they were injured on a ride at a state fair — the safety mechanism on the malfunctioning ride, the Vortex, had been disabled and the ride suddenly started moving while they were trying to get off.

Another danger for carnival-goers is food poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that consumers check to make sure the vendor they are buying from has a clean workspace and wears gloves when handling food.

People are especially at risk for food poisoning if they come into contact with livestock before eating, a common occurrence at state and county fairs. The best safety measure is for attendees to be diligent about washing hands, especially after touching cows, pigs, goats and other animals.