A gust of wind blows a poorly secured inflatable into the street. A moon bounce deflates while children are jumping on it. A woman falls from an inflatable rock-climbing wall and dies. Frightening stories about accidents involving inflatables are squeezing rental operators on several fronts. Not only does the entire industry get a black eye, but local jurisdictions are apt to impose costly new rules on installations, and options for insurance coverage can vanish. To safeguard the future of their businesses, some rental companies and their trade associations are working to create a “culture of safety” in the inflatables rental business.
Many of the safety problems that arise are due to a lack of proper education on the part of inflatables rental companies, says Bob Johnson, president of the Winter Park, Fla.-based Outdoor Amusement Business Association. “[Inflatables operators] may not be aware of applicable state regulations, the new ASTM F 2374-04 Standard Practice for Design, Manufacture, Operation and Maintenance of Inflatable Amusement Devices, and insurance requirements,” he says. Compounding the problem, Johnson adds, rental companies may “do a poor job training staff or inflatable attendants, and rent equipment without proper instruction or training for their clients.”
Since the inflatables industry is still largely unregulated — except for states such as New Jersey that began regulating inflatables in 2002 — it isn't difficult to get into the business. “Many enter the business with a small investment in equipment, and right away, they are in the ‘rental business’ doing small neighborhood parties, picnics, etc., then graduate into company events and festivals,” Johnson explains. “I've heard of too many cases where the equipment is either dropped off or picked up without proper safety instructions or operators on site to ensure safe operations.”
Avi Fertig, spokesperson for New York/New Jersey-based Responsible Owners of Amusement Rentals — which has nearly 100 members, primarily inflatables rental owners based in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut — also points to the irresponsibility of some manufacturers and operators of inflatables. “Manufacturers need to always think about safety first and foremost when concepting and designing new pieces,” he says. He adds that problems worsen when rental operators don't follow manufacturer's recommended operations guidelines, and don't correctly train their staff.
THE GOLD STANDARD
To help bridge the information gap, associations such as OABA and ROAR provide owners and operators with information about new regulations and ways to create a safe environment for the public. ROAR members meet monthly to discuss issues such as employee training, equipment purchasing, insurance and regulations. They also invite guest speakers who address issues of concern in the inflatables industry. “With individual company owners uniting to recognize the possibility of a problem, we are working to create a lasting standard of safety throughout the inflatables industry,” Fertig notes.
In order to ensure that members are complying with safety guidelines, ROAR conducts one warehouse survey per member company per year and does field inspections three times a season for every company. The standards that ROAR sets for their members have resulted in “a range of close to zero accidents or safety issues for ROAR members over the past two years,” Fertig says. Although such standards are not mandated by law, joining an association helps rental operators gain credibility, Johnson says. “Those in the inflatables industry that want to achieve a higher level of professionalism and safety instilled in their organizations will want to become a member of OABA and ROAR,” he notes, “and be recognized by industry insurance companies as the ‘gold standard’ in the inflatable industry.”
Consistent, proper training is necessary for inflatable owners to operate a safe business, says Cindee Patrick, co-owner of training company When Pigs Fly. The Murfreesboro, Tenn.-based company helps organizations improve employee training programs. Creating a high-energy atmosphere by engaging the audience in interactive activities and setting a theme for training sessions ensures not only that the audience is listening, but also that they understand what is being taught, Patrick says. When Pigs Fly set a Hawaiian theme at ROAR's Day of Safety & Training in May in Bayside, N.Y., which lasted eight hours and drew more than 75 attendees, both employees of ROAR member companies and inspectors.
“The most critical component is that no assumptions are made about the necessity to train in entire detail regarding setup, maintenance or operations,” Patrick explains. “What you think might be common sense may not be for your staff that is responsible for setting up the equipment, operating the unit and communicating with the renters.” During their training sessions with owners and operators, Patrick and co-owner Patty Beazly give an overview of necessary training for setup, maintenance and operation of inflatables, as well as step-by-step procedures to effectively train employees.
When Pigs Fly also sells a compact disc that contains the necessary components for setting up a complete operations and maintenance program, such as safety signage, inspection checklists and maintenance logs, as well as training documents that have standard operating procedures, training checklists, documentation logs and certification tests.
In February, the ASTM Standard F24 committee added inflatables to its standard concerning the design, manufacture, maintenance and operation of amusement rides. West Conshohocken, Pa.-based ASTM International is one of the largest voluntary standards development organizations in the world. While ASTM standards themselves don't carry the weight of law, they may be referenced in laws or contracts. Since anyone can join the committee, rental operators have a unique chance to shape the standard that will likely shape their product, says John Hinde, executive director of Port St. Lucie, Fla.-based AIMS International, an association for manufacturers, suppliers, organizations and individuals in the amusement industry. “The ones that have been involved from the beginning are very happy with the standards; they make sure their products comply with the law,” Hinde says. “The ones who are going to have a hard time with it are the ones who are trying to produce a product that is designed to be sold cheaply and not with the standards.” With the recent inclusion of inflatables to Standard F24, there are more guidelines that should be taken into account when buying an inflatable. “Operators should look for pieces by reputable large manufacturers that have demonstrated a history and a record for safety and should also make sure that they buy from manufacturers that carry product liability insurance,” Fertig advises.
THE LONG TERM
Since rental operators are finding insurance coverage costly at best — if they can find insurance at all — companies that continue to have accidents are going to face difficulties, Johnson explains. “When you see how the industry trade shows have grown with inflatable devices and now even large wholesale clubs are selling inflatables, coupled with the ever-watchful eye of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, those owners and manufacturers having numerous accidents or incidents will not be able to find insurance or will be curtailed by state or federal governments from operating or selling their products,” he says.
AIMS International, 772/398-6701; OABA, 407/681-9444; ROAR, 516/791-8000; When Pigs Fly, 615/545-8109