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OSHA proposes $7,000 fine for Ringling Bros. over aerialists' accident

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Tuesday it is proposing to fine the operator of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus $7,000 for a May 4, 2014, accident in Providence, Rhode Island, when nine employees were injured during its hair-hanging act.

A spokesman for the circus' parent company, Vienna, Virginia-based Feld Entertainment Inc., said the firm has not yet decided whether to appeal the fine, but that it is changing its procedures to avoid future accidents.

Eight employees performing the act fell more than 15 feet to the ground and sustained serious injuries when the apparatus from which they were hanging suddenly fell to the ground, OSHA said in a statement. A ninth employee who was working on the ground was struck by the falling employees.

OSHA said the equipment had been improperly loaded.

“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 Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, in a statement.

“While the $7,000 penalty is the maximum allowable by law, we can never put a price on the impact this event had on these workers and their families. Employers must take steps to ensure this does not happen again.”

“Equipment failures can lead to tragic results,” said Jeffrey Erskine, acting deputy regional administrator in OSHA's New England regional office. “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.”

Feld Entertainment has 15 business days to contest the ruling. A company spokesman said no decision on this has been made. “We don't necessarily agree with the agency finding” that the way the equipment was loaded “was the sole cause of the accident,” he added.

The spokesman said the equipment had been rated to hold 10,000 pounds but had held only 1,500 at the time of the accident. He added, however, the circus will change the way it loads the equipment. “We want to make sure an accident like this doesn't happen again,” he said.