[NOTE: This post was updated on May 6 to include new details from the Maui PD]
It was a tragic death. Shortly before 10am on Thursday, May 1, Patricia Rabellizsa (29) of Kihei fell about 150 feet to her death on the Piiholo Zipline course in Makawao. She was a company employee, and was working on that course when she fell.
On May 6, the Maui Police Department released the following details on the circumstances surrounding her death:
“The investigation revealed that RABELLIZSA who [sic] was working the platform, as a zipliner entered the landing platform at a high rate of speed. The zipliner struck the springs at the end of the line, which propelled her back. RABELLIZSA grabbed onto the zipliner to prevent her from going back down the line, however the momentum took them both back onto the line. Witnesses reported RABELLIZSA was able to hang on to the zipliner for a few minutes when she lost her grip and fell into the gulch below. RABELLIZSA was not secured to the landing platform with any type of safety harness.”
Here’s some video footage we took of a zipline landing, shot at Pi’iholo Zipline on March 9. As you can see the footage, everyone involved is secured to the landing platform:
Though Rabellizsa’s status as a company employee means this was a workplace incident, and places it under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR)’s Occupational Safety and Health (HIOSH) division, the state doesn’t regulate the zipline industry as a whole. But not surprisingly, just a few hours passed before state officials began calling for exactly that.
“I did introduce a bill a year before the last accident [in 2011] and it is only after the accident that the bill got some traction,” Representative Mark Nakashima, D–Hilo, told KHON2 News last night. “We are back here once again and perhaps this is what it takes to get interest from the Legislature.”
But like Thursday’s fatality, the 2011 accident on Hawaii Island involved employees working on an as-yet unopened zipline course. One person died and another was badly injured when a tower collapsed. HIOSH investigated that accident and concluded that the tower had been placed in soil that was too weak to hold it (Experiential Resources Inc., which operates that course, disputed that finding).
One bill that would have regulated the zipline industry died in the Legislature in 2012. Called SB 2433, it would have called on the state DLIR to oversee the industry. In October 2012, the Hawaii Auditor’s Office released a report on the bill and the possibility of regulating the zipline industry.
Titled Sunrise Analysis: Regulation of Ziplines and Canopy Tours, the report concluded that even given the 2011 fatality, “there was insufficient data of serious harm to the public to warrant regulation.” It further concluded that the two Hawaii agencies mentioned as possible industry regulators lacked the resources and expertise to do so.
Concerning the DLIR the Auditor’s Office found that it had “a multi-year inspection backlog of 5,000 elevators an dis not inspecting attractions that fall under its jurisdiction for amusement rides” and was “not capable of handling its current duties let alone another inspection program, especially without significant additional resources.”
That alone is a scandal. But to be fair, that was also two years ago. According to Bill Kuntsman, the DLIR’s spokesperson, the passage of Act 103 that year added 10 positions to the department, allowing it make progress in catching up on its inspection backlog. It also placed the department’s Boiler and Elevator Branch, which handles those inspections, on special funding. The result is that they’ve “made significant progress on reducing the elevator inspection backlog,” Kuntsman told me. “In 2011, there was a 75 to 80 percent backlog in annual inspections. Last year, I think we were at about 30 percent.”
The other agency mentioned as a possible regulator was the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (Rep. Angus McKelvey, D–West Maui, mentioned this as late as the KHON2 news article cited above). The state Auditor said that this agency “lacks the capability and authority to inspect accident sites, assessing cause and operator culpability in the event of significant accidents or fatalities.”
But even if the state were to find a suitable regulator, does the industry, which has about 22 companies statewide, need it? “[W]e estimate that around 2,000 people ride on ziplines and canopy tours each day in Hawaii, or more than 700,000 per year,” the 2012 Auditor’s report noted.
As far as customer fatalities go, there haven’t been any. While customers (who must sign liability waivers, and in any case are engaging in a “thrill-seeking” activity that’s popular precisely because of its perceived dangers) have been injured on Hawaii ziplines, the Auditor’s report found that “some of the worst injuries experienced by some operators occurred to people walking on the property.” What’s more, “the most common cause of injury is human error, primarily participants’ failure to follow instructions.”
Only about a dozen states nationwide regulate zipline companies, according to the Auditor’s report. Of those, just Florida actually includes state inspections as part of its oversight. The rest conduct “paperwork reviews” only. According to the Auditor’s report, “The DLIR believes industry inspections lack rigor, and a paper review would provide a false sense of security to the public.”
What’s more, the Auditor’s office reported that the DLIR estimated that paying for regulations would require “$400,000 initially and $350,000 each year”–money that would come from a “fee per operate of about $18,000, and $15,000 each year thereafter.” If that seems steep, it’s only because it is: the Auditor’s office dryly noted that license fees for zipline operators in other states typically ran between $25 and $2,000.
Though the next Legislative session doesn’t start for another eight months, expect to hear a lot more about this before then.