Nobody’s smiling: Bitter lessons from the Alton Towers accident
Imagine. It’s late spring, and you’ve gone for a day out with friends at one of the nation’s best known and well loved theme parks. The sun is shining, the air saturated with the fug of fast food and the shrill cries of excited visitors. Overhead, high-tech rollercoaster cars hurtle and swoop, seeming to defy the laws of physics. You join the snaking queue for The Smiler – the park’s newest and most heavily publicised ride to date – and eventually take your seat along with fifteen other thrill seekers. Your heart is racing, your adrenaline spiked. With more loops than any other rollercoaster in the world, it promises to be a gut-churning experience. Nevertheless, like all theme park attractions, it also promises to be safe. You will not come to any harm. The countdown begins and the ride lurches into life. But moments later something goes terribly, terribly wrong...
The Smiler rollercoaster crash
On June 2, 2015, a horrifying accident took place on The Smiler rollercoaster at Alton Towers theme park in Staffordshire, UK. A carriage carrying 16 riders slammed into an empty, stationary train, trapping the terrified riders 20ft in the air. When the victims were eventually cut down, 11 of them required medical treatment and five, aged 17, 18, 20, 27 and 49, were seriously injured. Two women subsequently required partial leg amputations in the weeks following the incident.
For the theme park, and its owners Merlin Attractions Operation Ltd, the accident was a PR disaster. Pictures of the incident were splashed across the front page of newspapers around the world. Visitor numbers and revenue dropped significantly, contributing up to 190 staff redundancies. The company admitted health and safety failings over the crash, and today (September 27) were fined £5m.
For the victims of course, the impact was even graver, as the HSE explained following the firms guilty plea: "The incident was profoundly distressing for everyone involved, both physically and mentally. It left some with life changing injuries." It is a trauma that no amount of compensation will ever allow them to forget.
Perhaps most distressing for everyone connected with this case, is that it was an accident that didn’t have to happen.
No room for complacency
Investigations into the crash revealed that there were no technical or mechanical problems with the ride itself. Rather, the incident was the result of ‘a human error involving the manual override of the ride safety control systems’.
Despite major leaps in occupational safety over the last few decades, human error remains a factor in many accidents. While Alton Towers has introduced a welcome series of new safety measures across all its multi-car rollercoasters since the accident, it is worth noting that there is more to managing human failure in complex systems than simply considering the actions of individual operators, as the HSE explains:
When assessing the role of people in carrying out a task, be careful that you do not:
- Treat operators as if they are superhuman, able to intervene heroically in emergencies.
- Assume that an operator will always be present, detect a problem and immediately take appropriate action.
- Assume that people will always follow procedures.
- Rely on operators being well-trained, when it is not clear how the training provided relates to accident prevention or control.
- Rely on training to effectively tackle slips/lapses.
- State that operators are highly motivated and thus not prone to unintentional failures or deliberate violations.
- Ignore the human component completely and failing to discuss human performance at all in risk assessments.
- Inappropriately apply techniques, such as detailing every task on site and therefore losing sight of targeting resources where they will be most effective.
- In quantitative risk assessment, provide precise probabilities of human failure (usually indicating very low chance of failure) without documenting assumptions/data sources.
Learning from mistakes
The awful tragedy of the Smiler crash contains lessons for us all. What should have been a routine ride ended in disaster. What should have been a fun day out ended in tragedy. Lives were changed forever, reputations were wrecked. Yet for all of the complexities of this awful incident, the important thing for us to remember is that this accident wasn’t simply a case of bad luck, a ‘bolt from the blue’. It was, according to Judge Michael Chambers QC, “a needless and avoidable accident”.
Under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers are required to protect the health, safety and welfare of both their employees and the general public. While Merlin Attractions Operation Ltd clearly failed in their duty on this occasion, this accident offers a stark reminder to businesses everywhere just how high the stakes are. Now courts are able to hand out tougher sentences that are consummate to the level of health and safety breach.
Karen McDonnell, RoSPA's occupational safety and health policy adviser
Posted: 9/27/2016 11:58:39 AM