Safety No. 1 for McHenry County-based carnival amusement company

CRYSTAL LAKE – When it comes to carnival safety, Pat Skinner’s family helped write the book.

Skinner, co-owner of a 103-year-old McHenry County-based amusement company, said her family’s focus on safety is one reason carnival-goers can feel safe as they whip around sharp turns on roller-coasters or plunge toward the ground from great heights.

After all, it was state officials who visited DRS Skinners’ Amusements Inc. back in 1985 to see how the company operated when carnival safety laws and regulations were fully developed.

“Safety has always been No. 1 for us,” Skinner said. “We actually helped educate [the state] when they were first establishing regulations. It’s completely turned around from when the company first started in 1910.”

Safety inspections have become a major reason why fairs have grown to allow thousands of people to move from roller coasters to hot dog stands and grand stages in an organized and controlled environment.

From inspecting the electrical cords that run throughout the fairgrounds to observing nuts and bolts on each ride, safety checks have become a coordinated effort between amusement company operators, state inspectors, fairground officials and insurance companies.

According to the Illinois Department of Labor’s most recent statistics in 2011, 2,576 rides were issued permits and 3,780 state inspections were executed. Nine injuries were reported, seven of which were from patrons ignoring pre-existing condition regulations or other guidelines.

Anjali Julka, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Labor, said halt orders or cease operation orders are issued if inspectors find that a ride does not meet manufacturer standards. But ride operators also must be responsible for safety, because a staff of five inspectors only goes so far.

“I would say the department is doing what it can to ensure the rides and attractions meet requirements under the law as best they can,” she said. “Owners and operators are often setting up newer rides, so we stay in tune with the industry.”

Skinner said that for an amusement company to take safety seriously, it must invest a large amount of money and time.

For her amusement company’s 25-week season this year, Skinner said owners have $2 million in insurance and close to $1 million in maintenance that includes a new $400,000 ride and $90,000 generator. Skinner said her company also has full staff meetings every Tuesday to go over new safety updates and training.

“We have some very good friends in the carnival business, and it’s easy to tell who puts the money back into their equipment,” Skinner said. “And honestly I think those who don’t should have to stop instantly. The state gives a warning if they don’t approve, but it should be instant.”

Safety also is a top priority for fair organizers who say it is their charge to make sure professional and responsible companies are invited to make each fair a success.

Larry Macheroux, an organizer for the McHenry County Fair, said safety is a top priority and those who put together the event can take certain steps, such as improving the grounds, which the directors did this year, he said.

“Safety is very important to us, which is why we send a form to all our vendors to make sure they run background checks on all their people,” Macheroux said. “It’s important in every decision.”

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