They Never Claimed it Was the Safest Show on Earth

By David Wylie, Senior Technical Writer

By David Wylie, Senior Technical Writer

Lessons in workplace safety are all around us. In our last post, a seemingly impossible workplace accident reinforced the importance of safety accountability on the job. Today’s post takes us to an industry that has been entertaining adults and children alike since the 1800s.

According to a news report:

“A ‘Hair Hang Act’ performance during a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show on May 4 in Providence took a disastrous turn when the apparatus the performers were hanging from suddenly fell to the ground. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has determined this incident occurred because the carabiner used to support the performers failed from being improperly loaded. The failure resulted in the eight employees performing the act falling more than 15 feet to the ground and sustaining serious injuries. A ninth employee, working on the ground, was struck by falling employees.”

It’s no secret the “Greatest Show on Earth” is not necessarily the “Safest Show on Earth.” When you go into that line of work, you accept risk as part of the job. The risk is, at least in part, what keeps audiences coming back for more.

But these lion tamers, tightrope walkers and motorcycle jumpers have years of training, and they’re good at what they do. Still, there is always the potential for something to go wrong, as it did in this case.


Everyone who steps on your jobsite, including technical writers, should wear the required personal protective equipment.

Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of OSHA, called on the circus industry to learn valuable lessons from this tragedy.

“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.”

I would never claim to know more about safety than Dr. Michaels. I would, however, suggest that the investigators start by looking into the attraction itself. I don’t know about you, but “Hair Hang Act” doesn’t sound like something I’d want to be part of, even if I weren’t folicullarly challenged.

But that’s irrelevant for this discussion.

I have no idea what a carabiner is, and I certainly wouldn’t recognize one that was improperly loaded. Consequently, much of this story was lost on me. But another quote from Jeffrey Erskine, acting deputy regional administrator in OSHA’s New England regional office, was something I could get my well-shaped head around.

“Equipment failures can lead to tragic results,” said Erskine. “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.”

Now there’s a nugget of wisdom that any employer, regardless of industry, should take to heart. What Mr. Erskine it saying is that inadequate equipment, poorly maintained equipment and employees who aren’t trained to use equipment can wreak havoc on any job site. You can reduce the risk by taking time to invest in safety every day.

Ergonomic keyboards can reduce the strain of repetitive motions on office workers.

Ergonomic keyboards can reduce the strain of repetitive motions on office workers.

If you work in an office, check extension cords for damaged insulation and bent prongs, and provide employees with ergonomically correct workstations.

Behind the wheel, get regularly scheduled oil changes, maintain your tires and replace them when necessary.

On a construction site, provide personal fall arrest systems, hard hats and other personal protective equipment, and train employees how to use it properly.

It may all sound like a lot of work you don’t have time for. After all, busy employers have to juggle productivity, finances, personnel matters and other issues related to running a business. Unfortunately, safety is often a casualty of that delicate balancing act.

Before you write off Mr. Erskine’s advice, consider this final quote from Dr. Michaels.

“We can never put a price on the impact this event had on these workers and their families,” said Dr. Michaels.

Remember that any workplace accident affects not only the worker but also his or her family and friends. That’s true whether your employees spend their days dangling by their hair or with their feet firmly planted on a cubicle floor.

About the author
David Wylie is the senior technical writer at Texas Mutual Insurance Company. He works closely with Texas Mutual’s safety professionals to teach employers and their employees how to prevent workplace accidents and their associated costs. David holds the OSHA 10-hour general safety certification and a degree in journalism from Southwest Texas State University.

Links to and from this blog do not reflect any affiliation between Texas Mutual Insurance Company and third parties, and are not an endorsement by Texas Mutual Insurance Company of the linked sites (or their owners or operators) or of any content located there. Texas Mutual Insurance Company does not vouch for the availability or accuracy of any information contained on linked sites.

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