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OSHA fines Ringling Bros. $7,000 in Providence accident

A hair-hanging performance ended when eight acrobats plummeted to the ground in Providence in May.
A hair-hanging performance ended when eight acrobats plummeted to the ground in Providence in May.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The federal workplace safety agency has fined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus $7,000 after finding that it improperly installed equipment used in a “human chandelier” act that ended when eight acrobats plummeted to the ground in Providence in May.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the rigging used at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on May 4 put excessive weight on a carabiner, causing the metal loop to fail, and the acrobats, who were hanging by their hair, to fall 15 to 20 feet to the ground.

A ninth person on the ground was injured when the acrobats fell, officials said.

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“Equipment failures can lead to tragic results,’’ Jeffrey Erskine, acting deputy regional administrator of OSHA’s New England office, said in a statement. “To prevent these types of incidents, employers need to not only ensure that the right equipment is being used, but also that it is being used properly. The safety and well-being of employees depend on it.”

A spokesman for the company that operates the circus, Feld Entertainment, said the company disagreed with OSHA’s conclusions but would be guided by the agency’s findings as it rigs equipment when the circus resumes its tour early next year.

For OSHA to conclude that “the way it was loaded was the only cause, we call into question,’’ said Stephen Payne. “We don’t know exactly why the carabiner failed. . . . But we have 144 years of experience putting on the greatest circus. Our operations folks have a great deal of experience in rigging acts.’’

The eight performers were hanging by their hair from umbrella-shaped rigging. The performers suffered a range of injuries. Two suffered severe spinal cord injuries, five had open fractures, and one had a lacerated liver, the acrobats’ attorneys said in June.

Payne, the circus spokesman, said in a telephone interview from the company’s Florida headquarters, that the carabiner used in the performance was inspected by a rigger before it was installed, and that the equipment was rated to hold 10,000 pounds while the total weight of the performers was about 1,500 pounds.

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It was reasonable for the circus to believe the carabiner could bear the weight, he said.

He also said the equipment was visually inspected before it was used in Providence. He said the rigger who handled that inspection in May has since left the company, but for reasons unrelated to the accident.

Payne said two people injured in the incident — the person on the ground and one acrobat — have returned to work. He said there are no current plans to resume the hair-hanging act, though the circus creates a new roster of acts each year and could bring it back.

He said Feld had not sued the maker of the carabiner.

While disagreeing with OSHA’s conclusions, Payne said the circus would be guided by the agency’s conclusions during the circus’s next tour, scheduled to start in January. “We are going to err on the side of caution and make that change for similar use in all of our shows,’’ he said.

According to OSHA, circus staff violated both industry practice and the manufacturer’s instructions for using the carabiner by attaching it so it was pulled in three directions, rather than two.

“This created a triaxial loading situation as opposed to the proper loading situation where the carabiner is loaded only at two points along its major axis,’’ OSHA said in a statement. “This improper manner of loading resulted in the carabiner being overloaded, causing the carabiner to fail and having all eight employees attached to the rigging fall to the ground.’’

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“This catastrophic failure by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clearly demonstrates that the circus industry needs a systematic design approach for the structures used in performances — approaches that are developed, evaluated and inspected by professional engineers,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.

Related coverage:

Injured acrobats hire law firm, speak out for first time

Photos: Scenes from the circus accident

Two performers in circus accident suffered spinal injuries

Prognosis unclear for acrobats

Circus performers risk much to amaze us all

Father of injured performer says he doesn’t blame circus


John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe-.com.