Dangerous fun: The circus as workplace

| May 14, 2014

In a recent accident at a Ringling Brothers performance in Providence, Rhode Island, the media has turned its lens to show what it really takes to entertain in a circus. A closer look reveals that while acrobats constantly balance between life and death, exotic and non-domestic animals who seem to enact happily, receive endless reprimands to deliver what is against their basic nature. At the Ringling Brothers performance, eight acrobats fell from a height of around 40 feet while forming a human chandelier. The performers were displaying the hair-hanging act when a steel clip supporting the apparatus snapped, bringing everyone to the ground with the apparatus atop. The carabiner clip was designed to support as much as 10,000 pounds but failed to hold the weight during the show.

Surprisingly, authorities  have been slow to take corrective action, hiding behind laws that free them of inspecting circus equipment. The Commissioner of Public Safety, Providence and Rhode Island Fire Marshals, the Department of Health, and state and federal Departments of Labor denied inspecting circus equipment reasoning that section 23-34.1-16 in Rhode Island General  Law entails no provision to inspect bazaars, fairs, and circuses unless they have amusement rides or devices associated with them. However, OSHA is looking into the accident to find if there were any workplace safety violations.

A circus performance

Improper safety measures can lead to circus accidents while performing dangerous acts. Image by: jasonbache

Major accidents in the circus history

Turning the pages of circus history reveals many hideous accidents blotting the reputation of the industry.

Back in 1916, Mary, an elephant, was hanged after she ran amok during a circus show, killing her handler. In one of the major circus accidents in 1942, a fire broke at Cleveland Circus killing over one hundred circus animals. Questions on safety were also raised when, in 2004, a Guinness world record holder named Dessi Espana lost her life while performing aerial acrobatics with a chiffon scarf.

In 1962, two members, popularly known as the flying Wallendas, fell to their death from 32 feet in the air while performing a daring pyramid act without safety nets.

Safety of wild animals and related laws

It’s not just the safety of workers — the condition of exotic animals that perform at the beck and call of their trainers has been widely criticized.

According to Animal Defenders International (ADI), bears spend 90 percent of their time in small cages in the back of a trailer. Animals such as bears and monkeys are forced to perform activities like riding motorcycles, dancing, and performing handstands. Elephants are kept in chains and are controlled by bullhooks and stun guns. Similar is the condition of Bengal tigers and African lions, caged in small boxes that lack enough room to exercise and move.

Although the current Animal Welfare Act (AWA) prohibits subjecting animals to any kind of physical harm, the rules are vaguely defined. Also, the government employs less than the required personnel for enforcement of the act.

The introduction of a new bill called the Travelling Exotic Animal Protection Act (TEAPA) seeks to put an end to the use of exotic and wild animals in circuses. If approved, US will join the list of 30 other countries including Austria, Belgium, Greece, India, Bolivia, Colombia, and Panama, that have given approval to a similar bill.

Category: News, News / New Products, OSHA

; ;