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Former Workers Say Ky. State Fair's Ride Provider Lacks Safety Training

The 2019 Kentucky State Fair
Amina Elahi
The 2019 Kentucky State Fair

The Fireball ride had been running for just over an hour at the 2018 Kentucky State Fair when something went wrong, and ride operator Duanne Haywood and a few other workers went underneath.

Within minutes, Haywood was pinned, his body bent in half under the weight of the ride.

Haywood was tasked with setting up and running the controversial ride by his employer, North American Midway Entertainment (NAME), last summer at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds.

“I was excited because I mean, that's the ride that I learned on,” Haywood said. “It's a ride that I enjoy setting up and a ride that I enjoy running.”

But soon he would be fighting to catch his breath as several of the Fireball’s other ride operators were scrambling to shut it down again and lift up one of the ride’s heaviest platforms to save Haywood’s life.

The NAME subsidiary that runs Kentucky’s fair, All-Star Amusement, was initially fined $7,000 by Kentucky’s Occupational Safety and Health inspectors for three serious violations after Haywood’s injury. Worker safety inspectors found employees were given deficient training and had deficient procedures for its machines, state records show.

KY OSH also found that NAME All-Star Amusement had not inspected its Fireball ride since 2015 — not even after a fairgoer died in Ohio after a Fireball gondola run by a different ride company detached.

Haywood’s injury at last summer’s state fair was one of 19 the company reported last year, and one of 70 since 2014, according to the company’s injury logs provided by Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health. Records don’t show how many of those injuries occurred in Kentucky, and the subsidiary runs fairs in at least seven states.

But overall, the injuries caused 150 days of total missed work for the amusement company’s employees since 2014.

Ian Cox, a spokesperson from the Kentucky Exposition Center, said the Fair Board has been in a working relationship with NAME for 13 years but was not aware of NAME All-Star Amusement’s worker injury record.

“When we have one reported incident made to the fair board, it's of concern and of interest in understanding what happened,” Cox said.

Lynda Franc, NAME’s corporate marketing director, touted the company’s safety measures in an emailed statement.

“NAME has always invested in being industry leaders with our safety checks, regulations and training,” Franc said. “Additionally, we are very proud to say that our safety procedures and protocols are the most comprehensive in the industry.”

But three former NAME All-Star Amusement employees told KyCIR they never received formal training.

“Training? What's that?” Haywood said with a chuckle.

Seventy Worker Injuries In Five Years

Companies like NAME All-Star Amusement are required to maintain logs of their recordable incidents, which range from minor episodes like slipping and falling on stairs to more severe accidents like having a limb severed.

OSHA is only required to investigate claims that result in hospitalization, amputation or death.

Ken Martin, a safety analyst and consultant for the amusement ride industry, says the number of injuries by the company running Kentucky’s state fair is hard to put into context because severity matters, and the logs don’t always explain how serious an injury was.

But 70 injuries in five years suggests a trend, he said.

“You have to understand, there's no way to keep track of their safety record,” Martin said. “There's no system in place that requires [NAME] to report under the penalty or the authority of law. I mean, when somebody gets hurt, the only reason they talk about it is because somebody found out about it.”

Haywood’s injury made the news within a few days: reports said the Fireball was immediately removed from fairgrounds property after Haywood was taken to the hospital. A NAME spokesperson told one local TV station that Haywood was hurt during set up of the ride.

The Fireball had opened at noon on the third day of the state fair. Kentucky Department of Agriculture records show it was inspected two days before.

The ride inspectors are focused on patron safety, and those records show that inspectors were not satisfied with what they saw at the time of the inspection.

The Fireball was given three “remarks” in the “structural integrity” portion of the inspection. The inspector offered five notes on necessary fixes: properly pin/key all support beams, properly pin and secure hydraulic cylinders, properly repair cracks in tubing above hydraulic cylinder, properly repair corroded decking and properly pin and secure deck hardware.

Haywood remembers the difficulty they had setting up the ride. He took a video on his cellphone showing rusty water pouring out of one part of the ride.

“Geez, there was so much wrong on that ride,” Haywood said.

But the inspection record shows the ride was passed. Kentucky Department of Agriculture spokesperson Sean Southard said that does not mean the ride could have opened unless the issues were fixed.

“KDA inspectors pass rides when and only when those comments have been addressed,” Southard said. “Upon those remarks being addressed, KDA checks the pass box afterwards and then places a KDA inspection sticker on the ride.”

Inspectors verified that the remarks had been addressed before the ride opened on Aug. 18, Southard said.

The passed inspection is dated Aug. 16; the next inspection came with the “stop order” the Department of Agriculture issued after Haywood was hurt.

Within an hour and a half of opening the ride, problems had emerged. One of the ride’s movable platforms was not raising all the way up, and hydraulic fluid was leaking from underneath the platform. Patrons were walked off the ride while workers looked into it, state records show.

Haywood and his coworkers went under the ride, he said, and it was determined the leak was caused by a faulty O-ring.

Haywood said he asked his coworkers to bring braces to hold the platform up. But the maintenance worker began replacing the O-ring immediately.

“Before [my co-workers] could put the braces in, [the maintenance employee] just pulled the valve out,” Haywood said. “And that's when it came down on me.”

Haywood said pulling the valve out caused the ride to lose pressure and fall. When the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health inspectors investigated later, that agency’s report deemed the reason for the platform’s drop “currently unknown.”

Haywood was pinned underneath the ride sitting up.The force of the ride began to push his head toward his feet.

Haywood said it felt like “forever,” and he was quickly losing his breath.

“If it wasn't for those three guys that were working with me, I would not have been here today,” he said.

Only Haywood was trapped, and the others were able to lift the heavy platform up just enough to place blocks underneath. Haywood fell over and laid down on one side before he was transported to the University of Louisville Hospital.

Haywood suffered three broken vertebrae in his back and spent six days in the hospital.

A year removed from the incident, he still suffers from extreme back pain, can’t stand or walk around for very long and has been told he won’t be able to lift more than 20 pounds for the rest of his life.

Back in South Africa, where he’s from, Haywood can no longer fill his free time with fishing, off-road motorbiking and bungee jumping like he used to.

“My life has come to a complete halt,” he said.

The Fireball ride is not operating at this year’s fair. A company spokesperson said all their Fireballs have been sold.

Training Lacking, Former Workers Say

Two of the violations KY OSH issued to NAME were for deficient training in how to lock out the hydraulic energy sources on the Fireball ride, and for having deficient machine-specific procedures for not using blocks or jacks to block energy sources during maintenance of the ride.

Haywood and other former NAME employees said none of those violations come as a surprise to them.

Among the other 2018 injuries the company logged during its tour through the United States:

  • Three times, NAME employees were injured by the Tilt-A-Whirl.
  • In May 2018, an employee injured his back when the ride sign for the Starship fell on him while the ride was being disassembled.
  • In July 2018, employee was struck in the head by the 1001 Nights ride “while he was cleaning himself off from customer’s vomit.”

Former employees told KyCIR they felt the work environment was unsafe.

According to three former employees, training at NAME consists of learning from the ride operators who have worked on specific rides for a year or two.

“After you've been on a ride for a day or two and they see nobody's gotten hurt or whatever,” Haywood says, “one of the bosses pitches up with a piece of paper and you just sign it. Then according to them, you've had official training.”

Ben Pieterse, a former NAME All-Star Amusement ride operator who worked with Haywood, agreed. He said he signed papers for a company inspector affirming he learned “what to do and what not to do” from coworkers.

“What they tell you to do is the training you get,” Pieterse said.

Pieterse said he hurt his back a few times lifting heavy parts of the Mega Drop ride. At 25, he said he needs a back brace every day as a result.

Martin Fourie said he started working for NAME All-Star Amusement in 2014, and his bosses really “took care” of him. But he also said no manager spent time officially teaching him how to operate the rides.

So he and his co-workers did things in the safest way they could have.

“There were some times when you had to do things that weren’t very safe,” Fourie said.

Early this year, NAME hired a new national safety director — and he is very familiar with the company, as he was Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s chief ride inspector for 16 years.

Chad Halsey left the state before Haywood’s injury and did not oversee inspections at the fair last summer. He began working for NAME in January.

Halsey says he “would never have come on board” if he knew NAME had a bad safety reputation. The company is safe and always has been, he told KyCIR.

But Halsey also acknowledged the training wasn’t where it needed to be. He said he was hired in part to reduce injuries and the insurance claims that follow, and to “do all their training and get everything back where it needs to be.”

The previous safety director was “not a people person,” Halsey said.

“But they are big on safety,” Halsey said of NAME.

Halsey said he’s spent about $5,000 on new climbing harnesses this year “to get them up to speed” as well as providing employees with new gloves and safety glasses.

But he says the problem still rests with whether employees use them.

“We can't be out there 24/7,” Halsey said. “I can make sure that they've got all the safety equipment they need — everything from eye protection down — but they gotta have some responsibility into wearing it.”

Halsey said he’s done several trainings for All-Star Amusement specifically this year, but employee training is the responsibility of each NAME affiliate’s general manager.
Rich Wyatt, NAME All-Star Amusement’s general manager, declined to comment.

Halsey said that he’s done hydraulic training with employees, the training that was lacking in Haywood’s injury, and he agreed that NAME had deficient procedures and trainings in locking out — a safety procedure that ensures machinery doesn’t run and endanger workers during repairs. But he said the accident wasn’t necessarily NAME’s fault.

“I wouldn't say we were in violation,” Halsey said.

The Kentucky State Fair’s current contract with NAME All-Star Amusement began in 2015. It ends in October, and a NAME spokesperson said the company expects to renew the contract.

Meanwhile, Haywood is home in South Africa waiting for the final resolution to his injury. He filed a worker’s compensation claim, and is waiting for his settlement from Kentucky to arrive.

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