Inspector says changes are needed to State Fair ride that injured operator

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The official who inspected carnival rides at the West Virginia State Fair this year says changes should be made for safety after an incident left a ride operator in critical condition in a Charleston hospital."Due to the nature of the injury, it would probably be suggested that they install some type of barrier to separate the operator from the motion of the ride," said Thomas Jones of Brandon, Fla.Adolfo Dominguez, 25, of Mexico, was operating a ride called The Speed at about 10:45 p.m. on Aug. 20 when he stepped into the path of the ride and was hit in the face by one of the attraction's cars, according to a spokeswoman for the traveling carnival company that owns the ride.Dominguez works for Reithoffer Shows Inc., based in Gibsonton, Fla. He is in a medically induced coma in critical condition at Charleston Area Medical Center, where he had surgery to reduce pressure on his brain and for a facial fracture.
The incident has sparked an investigation by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.Jones has been in the amusement-ride industry for 31 years and an inspector licensed in West Virginia for four years. He conducted the official inspection of the rides in Fairlea before the start of the fair."There is no gate on that specific ride that keeps the operator off the platform," Jones said.The Speed, made by KMG of the Netherlands, has two arms, and at the end of each arm hangs a gondola with seating for four riders. The arms make 13 revolutions per minute, in which passengers experience 3.5 times the force of gravity. The height of the machine is about 125 feet, according to KMG's website.Jones said this particular ride is an earlier KMG model that has the controls on the platform, where Dominguez was standing."The newer models don't put the controls on the platform," he said. Ken Martin, an amusement ride safety analyst and consultant from Richmond, Va., who also is licensed in West Virginia to inspect rides, said, "While a ride is in motion, the operator is to leave the area, and there should be a locked gate."Jones said he did not find anything wrong with The Speed during his inspection, and said that until this incident, not having a gate didn't present a problem.According to OSHA's machine guarding regulations, "any machine part, function, or process that may cause injury must be safeguarded. When the operation of a machine or accidental contact injure the operator or others in the vicinity, the hazards must be eliminated or controlled."Mindy Kolbus, Reithoffer's risk manager, said the company is cooperating with OSHA's investigation and plans "to ensure this doesn't happen again.""We have discussed painting a yellow warning line on the deck of the ride," she said, "but immediately what we did was meet with employees and discuss the importance of their safety and where they're to maintain a position while operating the ride."
Exactly why Dominguez walked into the path of the oncoming gondola remains a mystery.Missy Simmons of Princeton was at the fair and saw Dominguez lying on the ground after he was hit. She speculated that he could have been trying to watch the fireworks display across the fairgrounds.Risk manager Kolbus said she believes Dominguez was text messaging on his cell phone while operating the ride."One of the gentlemen there saw him looking down as he was walking into the ride and we found his phone on the platform," she said. "We don't know that for sure, but that's what we believe."She said employees aren't permitted to use their phones while operating a ride, and said the inspector lectured employees before the fair began on how it can be a dangerous distraction.Kolbus also said Dominguez might have been anticipating that the ride was going to stop.
Dominguez started working for the company in April on a work visa, and Kolbus said he had plenty of training as an apprentice."He wouldn't have been left to operate the ride until his supervisor was comfortable that he understood and knew what to do," she said.The company packed up from the West Virginia State Fair the morning after the incident and headed to Vermont, the next stop on its fair circuit. On its way, on Aug. 23, two tractor-trailers owned by Reithoffer collided in Ferrisburgh, Vt., according to a media report in that state.Vermont State Police said one driver was to blame when he crossed the centerline, according to the report. Drivers and the company were fined more than $1,500 after motor vehicle inspectors found 13 driver violations and nine equipment violations, the report states.The safety section on Reithoffer's website states, "Coming soon."Reithoffer has a history as the subject of federal safety investigations, according to OSHA's website. In 2007, the company was cited for two alleged violations at two Pennsylvania carnival sites, with proposed fines totaling $62,000.At a carnival in Bensalem, Pa., an OSHA investigation resulted in "a citation for one alleged willful violation due to the company's failure to provide employees with adequate fall protection. The agency has proposed a $56,000 fine," according to a release issued by the U.S. Department of Labor.It is unclear at this time if the matter has been resolved.Reach Kate white at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.
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