Working at heights is carefully monitored and regulated by OHSA guidelines and covered in each company’s safety management plan. Imagine coming up with a plan that covers eight employees suspending themselves from a circular platform 35 feet above the ground.
Without a net.
It’s not what you find on most work sites, but it’s a nightly occurrence at Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus–in the form of an act called the “human chandelier.”
In this particular act, the eight acrobats positioned themselves into the shape of a human chandelier, hanging by their hair from a frame while doing a ballet act. The effect has drawn oohs and ahs from audience members at each performance.
But on May 4, 2014, a steel ring holding the platform snapped, sending the eight female acrobats plunging to the ground. A male performer on the circus floor was hurt by the falling apparatus and two people in the audience were slightly injured.
While OSHA investigated the incident, the circus was ordered to cancel the remainder of their Rhode Island dates.
Apparently a carabiner clip was at fault. The performers visually inspected the rigging (including the clip) before showtime, but they didn’t see any problem. The rigging was designed by the founder of the acrobatic troupe, whose wife was among the injured.
The performers, from the U.S., Bulgaria, Ukraine and Brazil, were seriously injured, four critically. Two months after the accident, the four had gone through a total of two dozen surgeries and were confined to wheelchairs.
The clip, it turns out, was apparently installed incorrectly. Investigators said that there could have been structural problems that weren’t noticeable with just visual inspection. The five-inch D-ring carabiner was sent to a lab for more detailed analysis. it’s job was to hold the metal chandelier form that the acrobats used in their performance. It was made to hold up to 10,000 lbs. but just 1500 lbs. were suspended from it the night of the accident.
Ringling Brothers instituted their own inquiry, alongside the OSHA investigation. Though laws are strict for skyscraper window washers and construction workers, they are problematic for high risk performers. OSHA cites the “inherent risks of the work,” which means that safety measures are in large part up to the performers themselves.
Complicating the matter is the fact that many circus performers have trouble getting insurance, since very few companies are willing to handle high risk occupations. Although many in the trade must sign waivers of liability with their employers, at least four of those injured last May have announced plans to pursue legal recourse.
Every workplace needs safety to be built in. But coming up with a safety management plan is more difficult in some occupations than in others. The minute-long video below shows the act and the actual fall.
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