Words: Tina Weadick
A visit to the fair: is there another experience that can transport you back to your childhood so quickly or so vividly? The sights: whirling colours and dancing lights; the sounds: fear-tinged screams of delight and go-faster music; the smells of fried food and burnt sugar; and the rush of adrenaline. Fabulous!
When you are young, the fun of the fair – be it the carnival that comes to your town every year or the theme park you beg your parents to take you to in the holidays – is among the best to be had. But a major part of the thrill of amusement rides is the sense of going to physical extremes.
“People want to have the living daylights scared out of them,” says Melvin Sandell, the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) operational policy lead inspector for travelling fairgrounds. “They want to perceive that they are at risk but they don’t actually want to be at risk. The industry works hard to maintain that illusion.”
But a spate of accidents at UK pleasure parks and travelling fairs has underlined that the perceived risk and attendant fear that make them so thrilling can become all too real if the rides are not maintained and operated safely.
Until this year, there had not been a fatality at a UK fairground in seven years. But on 26 March, a seven-year-old girl died when the bouncy castle she was playing on at a fair in Harlow, Essex, broke free from its moorings in a gust of wind and blew away. Nine months earlier, a malfunction on the Smiler ride at Alton Towers – one of Britain’s biggest theme parks – resulted in two teenagers each losing a leg, and life-changing injuries to three others. And in June this year, two children were seriously injured when the Tsunami rollercoaster they were riding at the M&D’s park in Motherwell, Scotland, derailed.
That the victims of all three incidents were young people enjoying themselves at places that were supposed to be fun made the interest in them all the greater and the media headlines all the more sensational. But Sandell – one of two full-time fairground safety inspectors at the regulator – says the industry, given the millions of people it entertains annually, is a safe one.
“There shouldn’t be any more risk on a fairground ride than you would have in your normal daily life,” he says. “The accident rate is infinitesimally small and, even accounting for the three recent serious accidents, riding on a fairground machine is still safer than driving to the site.”
Sandell and his colleague, Sally Brecken, coordinate the work of the HSE’s National Fairground Inspection Team (NFIT) – a “virtual” team of inspectors that covers permanent and travelling fairs across the UK. This year, the executive’s Field Operations Directorate (FOD) has allotted more inspection time to the industry, which it classes as “high-hazard, low-risk”.
“We’ve been allocated more time in the 2016-17 work plan because it was acknowledged that more work could be done to reduce the risk on fairgrounds,” says Sandell. “Like most sector teams in the HSE, we are always trying for more proactive resources but the HSE will always have to make hard decisions about allocating its limited resources and, rightly, put it where the risk to the health and safety of people is greatest.”
Ticket to ride
To find out how the team functions, IOSH Magazine spent a day accompanying NFIT member Rohan Lye as he spoke to the organiser and ride operators at Wallis’s – a travelling fair camped at Tranmere Rovers FC’s Prenton Park ground for three days in July. The visit was routine and unannounced, and took place while the fair was open. Since incidents with fairground equipment usually happen because of the way they are operated, it is more effective for the NFIT to visit when the attractions are up and running, rather than during build-up.
“There will always be risk with rides,” says Lye, “so they have to be well controlled, well run and well managed.” The key to ensuring this, he explains, is daily and annual inspections. Ride operators must have a Declaration of Operational Compliance (DOC) for all their machines. This shows they have been inspected and declared compliant by the Amusement Device Inspection Procedures Scheme (www.adips.co.uk).
ADIPS is managed by the Amusement Device Safety Council (ADSC) (bit.ly/2aFK3i5), which comprises the main trade bodies for the fairground and amusement park industry and is supported by the HSE. It manages a system for the fairground industry that ensures rides are checked for safety before they are first used and then periodically throughout their working lives.
That the industry is largely self-governing is, according to Sandell, “generous, given what these machines can do”. He adds: “ADIPS has a range of vetted testers and keeps a list of all the machines in the country. The HSE accepts that, if a ride owner picks an inspector from the ADIPS list, they have complied with their duty to select a competent person. Occasionally, one of these ride inspectors may not perform as they should, which is obviously worrying for the HSE and the industry.”
And the HSE was certainly concerned about the involvement of the ride inspector after the Tsunami derailment at the M&D’s park. As part of its investigation, the executive announced in July that it had served a prohibition notice on an independent fairground inspector, who, according to reports, had issued a DOC on the Tsunami rollercoaster 16 days before the incident.
Nevertheless, Sandell is keen to stress that the industry scheme works. He points out that the number of fatalities and serious incidents has dropped steadily since the 2001 Roberts report – commissioned after a cluster of fatal accidents at fairgrounds that year, and which made various conclusions and recommendations on improving safety in the industry (bit.ly/2au6Egb).
“In 2001, there was no DOCs scheme and no NFIT,” Sandell notes, “but since then, everything else has remained the same: the same showmen, the same machines, the same fairs. The one constant has been the ADIPS scheme, so it is hard to argue that it hasn’t worked. It’s not perfect but I believe its effective.”
One of my main concerns is that the rides are becoming less and less heavy engineering
Most of the showmen and women at Wallis’s were able to provide their up-to-date DOCs for Rohan Lye, but those that were unavailable on the day can be checked on the ADIPS database.
“If a machine’s DOC is found to be out of date, we may have to take further action to ensure it is safe to operate,” Lye says. “In some cases, this could include prohibiting its use. Generally, though, we find that the equipment does tend to be maintained because the rides need to work for the operators to make money. To be legally compliant, however, they have to be examined as well by a competent person – usually an ADIPS inspector. That’s the part that may not always be done.”
Sandell agrees that the financial imperative tends to focus operators’ minds on looking after their rides. “The rides can be hugely expensive – many are bespoke and cost a fortune to make and buy. Most operators look after them but those at the lower end of the spectrum, not so much. The HSE tries to be proportionate – making sure that faults are remedied and trying to avoid taking a ride out of service. Issuing a prohibition notice and effectively taking someone’s livelihood away when I can’t prove there is a serious risk of injury is too draconian. If the ride is operated properly according to the operating manual, then it will be safe.”
Often, however, operators will modify their rides to increase the thrill factor and thus the ride’s appeal to customers.
“One of the things we watch out for is foot pedals – so-called ‘screaming devices’,” says Lye, “which operators press to make the machine go faster, or lurch more wildly, or whatever. The idea is to make people scream and therefore make the ride look more exciting and attractive. Obviously, there is the potential for misuse there.”
This, adds Sandell, justifies the HSE in asking operators who have modified their machines to put them back to how they were designed to operate. He says: “If you adjust a ride to make it go faster, the containment system that keeps people in the cars may no longer be effective. Also, the mechanics are designed to cope with certain forces, so if you increase the speed they can fail.”
There is no sign of any such souping up on our rounds at Wallis’s. According to Lye, the site is “a good-looking one, in general”. He emphasises that he “isn’t trying to catch anyone out”, an approach that fosters a friendly rapport between regulator and ride operator. Most of the checks are visual. Does the fencing around the ride prevent people reaching in and being hit or hurt? Is the structure stable and sturdy? Does the operator in the cab have a good line of sight to the ride and riders? Is there an assistant checking restraints? Are rules and warnings about rider behaviour and physical requirements clear and enforced?
That last point can pose problems for the operators. As we are talking to William Roberts, who owns and operates a Tagada ride, a young lad approaches his cab to ask whether he is tall enough to go on it. As he falls just short of the minimum-height line clearly displayed on a board at the entrance, Roberts tells him “maybe next year”. I ask the showman if he ever takes flak for not letting people ride.
“Oh, you get called all sorts,” he says, laughing. “People – especially parents – can get very annoyed. And then there are the … larger people. This can be very awkward but there are usually devices on the machines that will alert you if a belt isn’t closing properly. The machine won’t operate in this case, so that will make the point to the person, rather than you having to insist they get off because they are too large.”
Some disabilities may also necessitate an operator refusing a customer permission to ride, however uncomfortable that sounds. In such cases, the HSE will always side with the ride operator: “They have the final say on their rides,” says Lye. “As with larger people, sometimes the safety restraint just won’t work for people who are missing a limb, for example.”
The Tagada is one of two ride types singled out by the NFIT as “overriding priorities” for inspectors in 2016-17. They are being targeted as a result of problems identified by the HSE in safety alerts after investigations and incidents. According to the NFIT work plan, there have been numerous incidents on Tagada rides in recent years – some related to rider conduct, some to poor operating practices and some to a combination of both.
The ride resembles a wide, round, shallow bowl with padded bench seating around the inside. There are no divisions between or restraints for individual riders. The bowl starts to spin and then elevates at an angle on a hydraulic arm. When it reaches a preset speed the operator can “bounce” it, giving the riders the impression they will come out over the top, but the centripetal force holds them in place.
“The problem comes when they are bounced when static, or moving slowly,” Sandell explains. “Then, the kids can get thrown on the floor.”
He wrote to Tagada operators ordering them to have their rides checked by a competent examiner and to take steps to eliminate ejection forces, or provide full, interlocked containment systems. The letter contained updated advice on safe operation, including an instruction not to bounce the machine at low speeds.
According to Roberts, he was the first Tagada operator to install a device that prevents the operator bouncing it.
“That was about eight years ago,” he says, “and I’ve had the machine for 12 years now. Every time it is tested, we take an accelerometer reading as well.”
Follow the hazard
NFIT has a watch list of machines, rather than sites or operators; the peripatetic nature of the industry precludes the latter approach. Lye says they find the fairs by looking for online announcements. He adds: “Local inspectors will know what is going on in their area, and we also take tips and information from the operators themselves, about other operators and fairs.”
This is the “virtual” nature of the NFIT, coordinated by Sandell and Brecken, which comprises a network of inspectors, both general and specialist (in electrics, for example), from all over the country. They can call on inspectors’ time up to a set number of hours a year – 100 in total for 2016. Lye’s main job is as a factory inspector with the FOD in the Scotland and Northern England region, and he contributes to NFIT when needed.
Sandell gives an example of how the team works: “There was an incident with a machine recently that was reported in Essex, but the machine in question then moved on to a fair in Edinburgh, where it was inspected. Based on the result of that, I then visited it in Nottingham, where I served a prohibition notice. It’s one team acting in coordination with me as the hub.”
If we see something we don’t understand we stand back, look at it and ask ourselves ‘what if...?’
Sandell and Brecken provide a basic introductory course on fairgrounds and machine basics, non-destructive testing and electronic controls. Sandell acknowledges that this “skims the surface” of the diversity of machines involved but also points out that most of them are of very simple design. He explains: “The rides may all look different but, essentially, they all comprise large pieces of moving steel, controlled by hydraulics and pneumatics designed to lift and spin riders in different ways. They look different because of the colours and lights but all are designed to be put up and taken down quickly, with limited technical knowledge.”
Lye adds: “We work from first principles. If we see something we don’t understand we stand back, look at it and ask ourselves ‘what if...?’” The NFIT inspectors can phone Sandell at any time, to talk to him about what they are seeing on site. Often, they will send him photos taken on their phones for advice on what they are looking at.
The technology and capability of rides move faster than the regulator can keep up with, however. For that reason, horizon-scanning is a key part of what the NFIT team does.
“Modern machinery is very quick and very high,” says Sandell. “The Stealth machine at Thorpe Park takes ten people to 80 mph in less than two seconds; there are other machines that move you through the air 25 m or 30 m high at 60 mph or 70 mph. These things need to be built properly and inspected properly.
“One of my main concerns is that the rides are becoming less and less heavy engineering. If you go back to the days of waltzers and gallopers [merry-go-rounds], some of the equipment is 100 years old, so it is over-engineered to hell and back.
“But modern machinery is made to modern engineering norms and they are cutting back on weight and increasing speeds, based on the idea that they will be maintained in a certain way. My concern here is that you cannot throw these things up and take them down as you could in the old days, so a rigorous and thorough inspection scheme is even more important.”
A point surely underlined by the incident at M&D’s. Could what happened there – and at Alton Towers – happen again? Sandell reiterates that such occurrences are rare and that it is still safe to visit fairgrounds and theme parks.
Of the M&D’s case, he says: “The HSE is working with the police and the park itself to make sure such an incident doesn’t happen again. The failure on the Tsunami ride was mechanical, and it is important to stress that this is different from what happened at Alton Towers.” Merlin Attractions Operations, which runs the latter, pleaded guilty in April to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act, having previously admitted that staff had restarted the ride after a shutdown instruction from its control system. The company will be sentenced in September.
But can fairground rides and attractions ever be – as Harlow MP Robert Halfon demanded, after the death of Summer Grant on the bouncy castle – completely safe? Practically speaking, no, claims Lye. “You can never be 100% safe in any activity,” he says. “We wouldn’t be driving cars if that were the case.”
Ultimately, people go to the fair for fun, and for the thrill of being spun round, flung upside down and twisted every which way.
The plethora of signs festooning the dodgems arena at Wallis’s fair, warning riders to travel one way round only and not to engage in head-on collisions, shows how operators try to reconcile those desires with public protection. Surely careening around all over the place and walloping into your mates is the whole point of the ride. I say as much to Lye, who, quite sensibly – he is a safety regulator, after all – replies: “It does rather defeat the purpose, I suppose – but you can’t have chaos, either.”