While no one knows yet what caused a fatal accident at the Ohio State Fair, the immigration policies of the Trump administration has left some fairs scrambling to get enough workers to assemble and operate carnival rides.
In previous years, about 5,000 workers from other countries got temporary visas to travel across the U.S. with the companies that run state fair midways. They are among 66,000 or more workers who receive H-2B visas to do jobs for which Americans are not "able, willing, qualified and available to do," according the U.S. Department of Labor.
But uncertainty about President Donald Trump's tough stance on immigration has made foreigners less likely to seek work in the U.S., some employers told Bloomberg Businessweek, and the H-2B quota for the summer was full until Trump expanded it July 17.
By then, the fair season was already in full swing, and companies that depend on foreign workers to help set up and operate rides have said they were unable to find enough people to fill the slots.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. A 2013 study on working conditions at fairs found that people who come from Mexico to operate fair rides are subjected to horrific conditions that threaten not just their own safety, but the safety of fairgoers.
Some carnival operators that are unable to find enough workers this year are simply cutting back on the number of rides they offer. Deborah Murray, an owner of a Cincinnati carnival company, told The New York Times that she had recently opened a church carnival with five rides, half the usual number.
Others, like the company that erects and operates the rides for the Utah State Fair, had already secured enough visas for their workers before the slots ran out. It also hires local help.
Regardless of who is staffing the nation's fairs, ride safety will be under heightened scrutiny this year because of the horrific accident on the opening day of the Ohio State Fair. One person died and several others were critically injured Wednesday when a row of seats flew off a ride mid-air.
Jobs that Americans won't do
Every year, the United States welcomes tens of thousands of foreigners known as “guest workers” to fill non-agricultural jobs. The workers, many of whom come from Mexico and the Caribbean, are admitted to the country through H-2B visas, which allow them to work for only one employer for up to a year. (Their spouses and children may accompany them if they are granted an H-4 visa, but they're not allowed to work.)
The program, normally capped at 66,000 workers, is controversial on both sides of the political aisle. Conservatives, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, say it takes jobs from Americans; liberals say the program is rife with abuse and exploits foreign workers.
Trump, who promised during the campaign to protect Americans' jobs, raised eyebrows recently when he raised the H-2B cap to allow another 15,000 foreign workers. Three days later, his Mar-a-Lago resort and Trump National Golf Club in Florida applied for 76 of the slots, Vox reported.
Typically, amusement park and carnival workers are the third largest group of H-2B employees, after landscaping and forestry, according to a study on the working conditions of migrant fair workers, issued in 2013 by the American University Washington College of Law and the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant workers’ rights organization in Mexico. (So far this year, they're fourth, behind landscapers, housekeepers and maids, and forestry and conservation workers, according to the Labor Department.)
That makes foreign workers the “backbone” of the carnival industry, according to Carson Osberg, a co-author of the study and an attorney who works for immigrant rights.
But many of those workers are under-trained and perpetually exhausted, according to the study, entitled "Taken for a Ride: Migrant Workers in the U.S. Fair and Carnival Industry."
The researchers interviewed Mexicans who had worked for fairs and carnivals under H-2B visas and found that many worked 12 to 13 hours each day, some for about $275 a week. One worker they cited, named Nicholas, said he ran a small convenience store in Mexico, but was hired to erect and operate a 130-foot-tall roller coaster and had received no formal safety instruction.
“Fair workers routinely work 80 to 100 hours per week. Workdays are even longer on days before and after the fair has changed locations," the report said.
"Carnival rides are dismantled at the completion of the last day of a fair at a given location, which typically requires ride operators to work through the night disassembling rides in addition to their regular 12- to 14-hour workdays. Once they reach the next destination, workers often assemble rides to prepare the fair for business on the day of arrival or the following day.”
Thrill rides are designed to be frightening, even when they're working properly and set up and operated by professionals. The prospect of being strapped into a ride called Freak Out or Speed gets even more terrifying if there's a chance it was assembled by someone chronically fatigued.
But although accidents happen every year, the safety record of rides overall is excellent, industry officials say — and their claim is backed up by independent reporting and even by a study by a children's hospital.
Beware the … carousel?
In a study published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics in 2013, researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital analyzed emergency-room visits between 1990 and 2010 related to injuries involved amusement rides.
There were an average of 4,423 such visits each year, with an annual injury rate of 6.24 injuries per 100,000 children. About 1.5 percent of injuries required hospitalization.
Surprisingly, the rides that most often caused injury were not the thrill rides in the adult section of the midway, but a ride most people would consider one of the safest at the fair: the merry-go-round.
More than 20 percent of injuries occurred on a carousel, 10 percent on roller coasters and 4 percent on bumper cars.
Moreover, the injuries reported were not just at state and county fairs, but venues that included shopping malls. So the number of injuries that occur at fairs are even smaller — although they escalate to one every three days between May and September, the peak fair season.
“Injuries from smaller amusement rides located in malls, stores, restaurants and arcades are typically given less attention by legal and public-health professionals than injuries from larger amusement park rides, yet our study showed that in the U.S., a child is treated in an emergency department, on average, every day for an injury from an amusement ride located in a mall, store, restaurant or arcade,” said Gary Smith, a lead author of the study, and a professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University College of Medicine.
Regardless of who assembles and operates the rides at traveling fairs, they are typically inspected multiple times a day. In Ohio, the Fire Ball ride, which killed high-school student Tyler Jarrell when several seats broke off mid-air, had passed not only the operator's inspection, but examinations by the state agriculture department and an independent inspector from Florida.
"My children, my grandchildren ride this equipment, so our guys do not rush through this stuff," the Ohio Department of Agriculture's chief inspector, Michael Vartorella, told The Cincinnati Enquirer.
The chance of being seriously injured on a ride is about 1 in 9 million, according to the Outdoor Amusement Business Association.
However, when fatalities occur, or other horrific accidents such as when an 11-year-old Nebraska girl was scalped on a ride last year, it can be hard for parents to get the images out of their minds. Cellphone video of the Ohio tragedy has been widely viewed through traditional and social media.
Looking ahead in Utah
Analysts say that more injuries on carnival rides are related to rider behavior or operator error, not mechanical failure. In fact, one study in Canada found that riders not following rules caused 94 percent of accidents with injuries.
It will likely be months, if not years, before investigators determine what caused the accident in Ohio. But the owner of one company that works with H-2B workers says it's unlikely that a lack of workers had anything to do with it.
The company that runs the Ohio State Fair midway, Amusements of America, probably had a full staff before the H-2B visas ran out in March, since its fair season starts early, James Judkins, owner of JKJ Workforce Agency, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
"But smaller family-run amusement companies in northern states, like Ohio, were affected because their seasons start later," Farkas wrote.
The Utah State Fair runs Sept. 7-17, and its rides are provided by Thomas Carnival Inc., which had already employed 50 H-2B workers before the slots ran out, said Jeff Kooring, sales and marketing director for the fair.
Although Thomas Carnival got the number of guest workers it requested, the fair hires local workers, too. Together, Thomas Carnival and the fair expect to hire about 250 part-time, temporary workers, beginning in August, Kooring said. Many of these workers return every year and are well-trained and experienced, he said.
John Hanschen, president of Thomas Carnival Inc., said his company won’t be making any changes in its normal routines in light of the Ohio fatality because the company already has a good inspection system in place. “But it is worrisome, and you feel bad about it, and it makes you want to do your work even better,” Hanschen said.
Hanschen said he had not read the “Taken for a Ride” report, but that it’s common sense that “you can’t think straight if you’re extremely tired” and his company is conscientious about providing rest and meal breaks for its workers. But even under the best circumstances, accidents happen, he said.
“It could happen to anybody, anywhere. You’re fooling yourself if you think it can’t, in any line of work.”