Ziplines are marketed as providing a safe, but enjoyable way to have fun in the great outdoors. Whether they are marketed as a standalone attraction or as part of a challenge course, summer camp, corporate retreat, or other team-building exercises, the zip line is unequivocally presented as a safe activity. However, the truth regarding zip line safety may be that the activity is less safe than it appears. While every activity has its risks, the four deaths that have occurred on zip lines this summer raises important questions. First, are zip lines an inherently safe activity. Second, who is regulating and overseeing zip line operations so that operators meet safety standards and do not unnecessarily subject the public to danger.
After the death of a 12-year-old girl at a North Carolina summer camp, state legislators have recognized the problem presented by the rapidly expanding zip line industry. Rep. Ted Davis, R-Wilmington who introduced a bill that would regulate the attraction in North Carolina stated, “The point is these things are obviously dangerous and they need to be monitored. They need to be regulated.” However, the industry has already received some guidance from standards and credentialing organizations. Unfortunately, recent incidents are also calling the sufficiency of these standards into question.
Summer Zip Line Deaths Raise Questions About Regulations and Zip Line Safety Standards
ACCT stands for the Association for Challenge Course Technology. The organization is that largest ANSI certified standards developer that focuses exclusively on the challenge course industry. The ACCT establishes and issues standards for professional challenge course practice that emphasizes safety. The organization publishes standards that should be used to guide the installation, car, and use of zip lines and challenge courses.
In one particularly tragic zip line death, a 12-year-old girl was secured into a zip line harness at her North Carolina summer camp. The individual who strapped the girl in was the course supervisor and was trained in ACCT standards. In fact, the entire North Carolina camp challenge course had been designed, installed, and inspected by an ACCT- certified business.
However, despite these precautions and training, the little girl would plummet more than 40 feet to hear death when her zip line cable snapped. Her dual zip line snapped because the tether was mistakenly draped over the top of the zip line’s second steel cable. As the girl traveled down the zip line, friction from the tether rubbing against the steel cable produced heat sufficient to melt to the tether.
Unfortunately, this accident shows that even trained professionals can make mistakes in the heat of the moment. While we do not know the exact circumstances present, summer camps are often active and bustling. Children may be in a hurry to set out on their journey while other campers ask the instructor a million questions. Regardless of what caused this mistake, when the stakes are life and death processes, procedures, and equipment must have built-in fail-safes or error-checking so that a momentary mistake does not produce catastrophic, life-altering injuries or death.
Man is Strangled by Safety Harness in Zip Line Fall
In another incident, an 18-year-old Tennessee man died after his neck became entangled in a zip line safety harness following a fall. The facility where the accident occurred was previously visited by an ACCT-certified inspector who did not note any irregularities or deficiencies. A post-accident inspection by a different inspector found that the combination of equipment and safety equipment created a safety hazard. In light of this realization, ACCT issued an important safety advisory regarding dual leg lanyard harnesses.
According to the advisory, commonly used dual leg lanyards can present an “unrecoverable” risk that the rider’s head or neck will become trapped. The organization states that the risk exists, “during the normal and expected use intended by the manufacturers of these systems and can exist on aerial adventure courses approved for use by reputable vendors.” The organization further cautions that stumbling or falling out of control is a very real possibility when zip lining, therefore one’s head or neck becoming wedged or entangled is also a very real possibility. The organization also admits that it is “difficult to imagine how to fully mitigate this risk through instruction or monitoring of guests and staff without destroying the character and value of the aerial adventure course.”
However, the organization suggests riders take the following steps and make the following considerations prior to using any zip line or harness system:
- Participants should always consider the distance between the attachment point and the junction point, the characteristics of the junction, and the harness fit on the individual rider.
- The upward movement by the lanyard and harness in the case of a fall should be considered.
- Participants should consider how other pieces of safety equipment, such as a helmet, will fit into the safety system and whether the equipment exacerbates the risk.
- Ensure that the harness is sized and secured such that the hard connection point cannot move or slide beyond the intended maximum.
ACCT cautions that riders should never assume that the manufacturer has mitigated or eliminated this risk. Furthermore, it states that pulling oneself upwards in an attempt to escape the impinged or trapped position does not appear to be a solution to this risk. The advisory by ACCT may make people aware of this risk, but current designs of harnesses and tethers may mean that zip lining is not a relatively safe activity but rather an inherently dangerous one.
Perhaps more troubling is that the facility where this zip line death occurred had also been inspected by ACCT prior to the incident. The notice published by ACCT along with other remedial steps seems to suggest that this risk was unknown in the industry until earlier this month. The potential for additional undiscovered risks and safety hazards should make potential zip line participants reconsider until further research can be done regarding this new risk and other potentially undiscovered problems.
Zip Line Deaths in 2015
Other zip line deaths include incidents that occurred in Utah and South Carolina. In the Utah incident, a 54-year-old man was on his second day of his new job as a zip line instructor. Unfortunately, this day would be the man’s last.
Some zip liners come into the landing area with too much speed. These individuals will be bounced back in the other direction on the track and, according to workers, there is no danger. Unfortunately, it appears that the new worker was not instructed regarding what to do when riders come in too quickly or he, at the moment, forgot his training and took inadvisable action. The worker decided to grab on to a zip liner to prevent them from bouncing back. While the worker was able to grab the rider, he apparently decided to hold onto the rider. When the rider bounced back outside of the landing platform area, the worker had only the rider to hold on to with the desert hundreds of feet below. The worker was unable to hold on and plummeted to his death.
In the South Carolina incident, a young 16-year-old girl was part of a summer camp group that was participating in an event called “Freebird.” The Freebird event apparently consists of a large pendulum rope swing and a high ropes course. During the course of the event, the young girl became unhooked from the swing falling more than 100 feet to the ground below. The event was supervised by two camp employees. While investigators did not find any signs of foul play or mechanical failures that would have caused the accident, they did suggest that the girl may have never been strapped in.
Injured in a Zip Line Accident at a Summer Camp or Challenge Course
While zip lines have traditionally been marketed as a safe and enjoyable way to enjoy the great outdoors or to achieve personal growth, the reality regarding their safety may be up for reconsideration. New questions regarding the safety of even ACCT certified courses and equipment should spur potential participants to have a serious and frank conversation regarding safety before engaging in these activities. If the organization cannot answer your questions or the concerns raised by ACCT sufficiently, it may be in your best interest to refrain from riding.
If you or a loved one have suffered catastrophic, life-altering injuries due to a zip line accident call the experienced personal injury lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm today at (215) 709-6940.