PA’s regulation of amusement parks falls short in inspections, enforcement

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Four inspectors for the state

 

It’s the job of private safety inspectors to check things like a ride’s brakes, latches, seat covers and seat belts every 30 days. They must then sign an affidavit, sent to the bureau, that attests to that inspection.The private inspectors must be certified by the state and can be a park’s owner, an employee or an outsider hired by the owner. In addition, ride operators must perform daily inspections and keep a log on site that can be accessed by state officials.

But it’s the bureau and its state inspectors who enforce the law. They do on-site inspections and have the power to issue warnings, require repairs and shut down rides.

Abod knows what it’s like to set up and break down amusement rides in the rain, heat and snow.

He traveled the state for about five years, making sure the parks followed the law, which included checking that inspection reports were up to date in Harrisburg.

He wasn’t surprised to hear the state was missing inspection reports from parks.

Rides intertwine at Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa. The park turned in all of its inspection reports in 2012. (Photo by Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News)

“Yeah, that’s the state,” said Abod, laughing. “Nobody is checking on them.”

Ride owners try to get away with things all of the time, Abod said.

It was typical for a park to complain when a state inspector shut down a ride or issued a fine, former inspectors said. Sometimes, a fine was reduced or eliminated.

Abod once discovered an indoor inflatable ride in Philadelphia running on a gas-powered generator. The generator was emitting fumes and likely poisoning riders. If he hadn’t shut it down, who knows what could have happened? he asked.

“You know what’s going on. You gotta catch them,” Abod said. “And it’s probably worse than ever now.”

That’s because in 2009, there were seven state inspectors. Now there are only four to police thousands of rides.

What’s the answer?

Pennsylvania’s got some of the best state inspectors in the country, Abod said.

But is it possible to effectively police the industry with four state inspectors?

Kennywood, near Pittsburgh, filed all its inspection reports in 2012. (Photo by xbettyx/Flickr)

 

“There’s only one guy [west] of the Susquehanna River to take care of this whole area,” said Rich Yeagley, another former state inspector.

Several former state inspectors said the reputation of the bureau to follow up and enforce the law has been eroding for years. They asked that their names not be used because some of them still work in the industry.

Maher, the state legislator, said the solution is simple: The bureau needs to track who’s following the law and who is not.

But others disagree. The only way to ensure safety at any amusement parks — including Pennsylvania’s — is federal oversight, said Justin Reiff, who works for a Philadelphia law firm that handles many amusement-park injury cases.

“The fact that parks aren’t submitting affidavits, that’s a problem,” he said. “Because it shows the state is not doing its job in overseeing the amusement parks.”

“What’s it going to take — a Texas?” he asked. “Does this state need a roller-coaster death to wake everybody up?”

Data entry was contributed by Halle Stockton, Bill Heltzel, Alexandra Kanik, Leah Samuel, Tim Israel and Meg Koleck.

Reach Emily DeMarco at 412-315-0262 or edemarco@publicsource.org and Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or nkhan@publicsource.org.

 

How we did it:

PublicSource analyzed thousands of safety inspection reports from the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Ride and Measurement Standards in response to a Right-To-Know request.

The law requires a Pennsylvania amusement park to have a state-certified inspector check  every operating ride and turn in inspection reports every 30 days during the months it is open. The reports must be filed within 48 hours of completion and can be mailed, faxed or filed electronically with the state.

Every park must tell the bureau the dates it is open. We matched the inspection reports with those dates, giving each park an additional seven days from the official filing date. 

We analyzed 117 parks listed by the bureau as permanent parks and water parks operating in 2012. They include not only large amusement parks and and water features, but small operations such as a one-ride YMCA.

The rides the parks operate include inflatables, roller coasters, drop towers, carousels, zip lines, rock climbing walls and water slides.

Excluded from the analysis were:

  • Go-kart operations, non-seasonal parks, carnivals, rentals, traveling shows, haunted attractions and unknown categories.
  • The 2012 inspection reports submitted by parks to the bureau in July after PublicSource questioned officials about missing reports.
  • Parks that were not operating in 2012, according to a list provided by the bureau.
  • Parks that had no itineraries on record or had inspection reports with multiple or conflicting dates.

Parks that filed all of their required inspection reports with the state were considered compliant.

Parks that were missing one or more months or that filed inspection reports more than seven days after the deadline were considered non-compliant.

Only records the bureau provided to PublicSource were used to determine compliance.

The state records used included:

  • Accident reports
  • Inspection reports from certified private inspectors
  • Inspection reports from the bureau’s state inspectors
  • Records related to registered rides, owners and operators
  • Amusement Ride Safety Advisory Board meeting minutes
  • Itineraries
  • Internal emails
  • Court filings

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