British amusement parks were thrown into the media spotlight last year when an incident on the Smiler rollercoaster at Alton Towers left five people with serious injuries. Since the crash, even routine stops on rides around the country have made dramatic headlines – but how safe are they really?
The record at theme parks and fairgrounds is “actually pretty good”, according to Melvin Sandell, a fairground inspector at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). More than a billion “individual bums-on-seats rides” are taken every year, he says, and from those rides only around 35 people are taken to hospital for treatment.
This low accident rate is thanks to a range of safety precautions, which stretch from rollercoasters’ over-the-shoulder harnesses and electronic control systems to measures as simple as fences to keep park visitors away from moving parts. While worn electrical equipment and the dangers of working at height are key risks for fairgrounds, which are taken apart and reassembled frequently, theme park operators have the advantage of being able to perform better maintenance on their equipment – although the stakes are higher on their high-octane rides.
“The parks with fixed attractions don’t tend to have small, low-level accidents,” Sandell says. “If they have them, they tend to have big ones. This is part of HSE’s strategy with fairgrounds – the reduction of the chance of catastrophic accidents – because as was demonstrated last year at Alton Towers, if something goes wrong on one of these big machines it tends to go wrong in a pretty spectacular way.”
To prevent such incidents, huge amounts of money and time are spent to ensure these state-of-the-art rides are built with safety in mind from the start. The Smiler at Alton Towers, for example, cost the park £18million to build.
“A lot of these big machines at theme parks tend to be bespoke things,” Sandell says. “You can’t go and buy a Nemesis and you can’t go and buy a Smiler off the shelf. These things are all designed from the ground up, and the first part of any design for them is a thing called a design risk assessment. “The initial thought before anything is even put to paper is that the initial idea is risk assessed to see whether the thing can be built and manufactured to operate safely. And then the entire design is so that the ride will be safe above all things.”
One key safety feature on multi-car rollercoasters is a track block system, whereby the ride is divided into as many as eight or nine sections and only one car is allowed in each at any time. And to keep riders in place, over-the-shoulder harnesses provide what Sandell calls “360-degree containment”.
These are also linked to the electronic system so the ride can come to a halt if anything goes wrong. All those are interlocked into the control system, so if they’re not down the machine won’t start and if they come loose when the machine is going the machine will stop,” he explains. This enables staff to get people off a ride if anything is potentially amiss.
While Sandell believes current restraints are reliable and will not change much, he says Wi-Fi-connected rides could be one the next big innovations in developing new, safer attractions, as well as “one-wire” control systems, whereby interlocks, brakes and sensors are “individualised to their positions” and linked with a single wire.
“This sounds less failsafe, but it’s actually more failsafe because each of those safety features is not interchangeable with any other,” Sandell says. “There will only be one thing in one position, so that one control wire will operate the ride in a safer fashion.”
While rides are generally safe and developments like these will improve safety even further, Sandell appreciates that recent events have cast increased public scrutiny on theme parks and their attractions.
“The last 12 months have not been good for the industry in general,” he says. “Obviously there was the Alton Towers accident, which was a big, big, high-profile thing that is going to have ramifications around the world… The operators of that particular ride are considered to be world leaders in what they do and everybody’s pretty amazed, and if it can happen to them it can happen to any of us. So there’s a great deal of interest in how that happened.”
HSE is now working with the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions to ensure the robustness of its members’ risk management systems, and with the Health and Safety Laboratory to check that physical and electronic protections are as strong as the parks and regulators believe them to be.
“HSE is very aware that fairground accidents in general happen to children and young people out at leisure, so they have enormous emotional pressure and media pressure,” Sandell says. “HSE’s core strategic approach, certainly in the past and the near future, is to do whatever we can to keep the chances of accidents – and particularly catastrophic accidents – down as far as is reasonably practical.”
Although work to further improve safety continues, Sandell again refers to the UK’s relatively low accident rate at amusement parks and fairgrounds: one death in the last seven years and only 35 people per year visiting hospital for treatment. “I think it’s still very true that you stand a far greater chance of being hurt driving to the fairground than you do when you’re actually on a machine,” he says.
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