Ringling Bros. safety record has drawn scrutiny

Circus performers look on as paramedics treat several other performers who fell to the ground during a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus act at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, RI (ReportIt/Joe Ponte)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The safety record of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, whose acrobats were seriously hurt in an accident in Providence on Sunday, has drawn negative attention in the past.

In 1994, a Ringling Bros. performer died during a performance in St. Paul, Minnesota, after the long chiffon scarves on which she was twirling gave way and she fell from 30 feet in the air onto a concrete floor. At the time a spokesman told reporters it was the first fatal accident involving Ringling Bros. in at least a decade.

Sunday’s accident wasn’t the first time someone got hurt during a circus show at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

In 1998 – back when the venue was still called the Providence Civic Center – a Ringling Bros. performer broke her ankle while doing the “human cannonball” routine and required surgery at Rhode Island Hospital, according to a Providence Journal report at the time.

And in 1985, a Ringling Bros. aerialist performing at the Providence arena suffered three cracked vertebrae when he fell roughly 30 feet after he’d been hanging by his knees, The Journal reported at the time.

An online database maintained by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is now investigating Sunday’s incident in Providence, shows other examples of problems at Ringling Bros.

In 1993, an elephant trainer was crushed to death by an elephant in a holding pen in Williston, Florida. OSHA fined the circus company $1,575 in 2006 for two non-performance-related safety violations in Toledo, Ohio.

Ringling Bros. also reached a settlement with the state of Nevada in 2011 after being cited for failing to guard floor and wall openings.

Steven Payne, a spokesman for Ringling Bros. owner Feld Entertainment Inc., defended the circus operator’s safety record Sunday.

“Each and every time that we come to a new venue, all of the equipment that is used by this performer – this group of performers as well as other performers – is carefully inspected,” Payne told CNN.

“We take the health and safety of our performers and our guests very seriously, and our company has a safety department that spends countless hours making sure that all of our equipment is indeed safe and effective for continued use,” he said.

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré and police officials said Ringling Bros. was solely responsible for the setup and rigging of the current show at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. The circus hires riggers, including local riggers, and conducts inspections before and after each show, they said.

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