Providence R.I. Circus Accident Brings Workplace Safety Concerns Into Focus

The weekend accident in Providence R.I. that injured nine of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus performers raises several questions as to the question of negligence and responsibility of the employer – Ringling Brothers – and the manufacturer of the equipment used in the performance. While the incident is still under investigation as of this date, Paul Doughty of the Providence Fire Department stated: “It was a single piece of equipment that failed”. According to Mr. Doughty, a carabiner – a 4-5 inch steel clip used in rock climbing and other weight-bearing activities – that is part of the metal apparatus holding the performers 40 feet above ground, snapped into three sections. The Federal Occupational and Safety Health Administration is investigating and a final report is still months away. In the meantime, as the performers recover from their serious injuries, some of which may be career ending, several questions need to be addressed.
Foremost, is the responsibility of the employer -Ringling Brothers- and additionally the question as to the safety of the device including the failed carabiner piece. For example, although the failed carabiner is rated to hold 10,000 lbs and the weight in this case was approximately 1600 lbs, continued use over time may lead to metal fatigue and therefore failure. The employer will need to address whether or not sufficient safety protocols were practiced such as a periodic check of the equipment, replacement schedule, and the apparent lack of backup systems in case of the failure of one part. The manufacturer’s responsibility will focus on design, weight ratings and backup systems. Another interesting question is the assertion that the custom apparatus that failed was designed by the circus troupes manager and manufactured elsewhere.
OSHA records show few investigations of the circus over the past twenty years. Risk is part of the entertainment attraction of circuses thus resulting in less common application of safety procedures like safety nets below the performers. In 2004, a Ringling Brothers acrobat was killed when the scarves that were used as part of the act failed leading to her falling 30 feet to her death. The accident was not investigated by OSHA because “ risk was part of the act” according to an OSHA spokesperson. In this case OSHA is investigating, leading to the question of why now?

Written By: Ronald J. Resmini

Last Updated : Monday, July 11, 2022