Ringling Bros. cited for hair-hanging stunt that injured 9; feds propose $7,000 fine

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus misused a key rigging component in a hair-hanging stunt, causing a fall that seriously injured eight acrobats, federal workplace safety regulators said Tuesday.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company for a serious safety violation and proposed the maximum fine, $7,000, for the circus' parent company, Feld Entertainment. It concluded circus staff had improperly loaded a carabiner clip.

The company disputed the finding and was deciding whether to contest it, said Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment.

OSHA investigators said the company attached two rings to the bottom of the carabiner, rather than one, in violation of what it said was industry practice and of the manufacturer's instructions. Investigators said that caused the clip to be overloaded.

Payne disputed that, saying the clip was carrying a lower load than it was rated to hold.

David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, called it a "catastrophic failure," and said it demonstrates the circus industry needs professional engineers to develop, evaluate and inspect the structures it uses in performances.

"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," he said.

Payne said safety of its workers and audience are the company's top priority, and it is making the necessary changes.

The eight acrobats were attached by their hair to a chandelier-like apparatus and suspended in the air. They had just begun their act on May 4 when the carabiner clip snapped, sending them plummeting to the ground 15 feet below. A ninth worker on the ground was hit and was also hurt.

Most of the women were severely injured. Some were unable to walk as of June, and they have collectively gone through dozens of surgeries. Several of the women hired a lawyer and at that time said they were planning to sue the company. The lawyer did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday.

One of the women, Samantha Pitard, has returned to the circus, but the others have not and are being covered by workers' compensation insurance, Payne said.

The hair-hanging act has not returned to the circus. Payne said they haven't decided when it will return or what it will look like.

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