Kerry Self watched as her 6-year-old grandson, Gavin, flew in centrifugal circles high over the midway at the Kern County Fair.
The ride, known as Wave Swinger, seemed safe enough. But as Gavin's chair swung farther outward, suspended by four chains from a tilting disk, Self looked nervous.
“There have been stories in the news lately about problems with rides,” she said as she glanced back up at her smiling grandson. “Yeah, I’m worried.”
Self’s concerns revolved around a question many fair-goers ask themselves each year in September: "How safe are the carnival rides at the Kern County Fair?"
Frank Polizzi, a spokesman for California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal-OSHA, said the agency's Amusement Ride Section inspects every ride in the state at least once a year — more often if problems are flagged.
They not only inspect the structural and mechanical integrity of the rides, they look at the operation of the ride, the maintenance and safety records and the training of the operator.
If a ride doesn't pass inspection, no annual use permit is issued until all requirements are addressed and the ride passes a follow-up inspection.
"In addition, the unit responds to complaints — and anyone can file a complaint," Polizzi said.
"California has really high standards, much higher than federal standards," he added. "We don't see a lot of major accidents here."
In fact, last year, the agency inspected more than 1,000 rides and amusements — and returned for a second inspection of 214 of those attractions.
Just four accidents were reported that year, but only one appeared to result in serious injury when an electric winch on a zip line in Wheatland, Calif., used to secure the zip line disengaged and a male patron fell approximately 15 to 20 feet to the ground, injuring his neck, back and knee.
None of the accidents occurred in Kern County.
The previous year, 1,021 rides were inspected, 294 were reinspected and six accidents were reported, most of them involving a fall and minor injuries while the customer was exiting the ride.
The last reported accident at the annual Kern County Fair happened in 2012 on the Spin Out attraction, owned by Butler Amusements. According to Cal-OSHA, one of the ride's four outriggers had been removed by the ride operator and wood blocking was used instead.
While operating, the forces of the ride broke the wood blocking apart causing a portion of the attraction to hit the deck. A patron was slightly injured when her right shoulder was hit by the platform while standing at the ground level.
The injured patron was examined by her family doctor after going to a local emergency room for observation.
Most accidents involve minor injuries, scrapes, cuts or the occasional fracture. It's not uncommon to find the patron was at fault.
But sometimes accidents occur that send shockwaves through the amusement ride industry.
One such accident happened July 26 at the Ohio State Fair in Columbus involving the Fire Ball ride when one of the ride's passenger gondolas detached from the housing, sending it tumbling to the ground, killing an 18-year-old man and injuring seven others, four of them critically.
The ride is owned by Amusements of America, which is not affiliated with the local fair.
Lance Moyer, chief operating officer of Fairfield, Calif.-based Butler Amusements, which supplies carnival rides and other attractions to the Kern County Fair each year, said when Butler learned of the Ohio accident, it immediately shut down the Fire Ball it owns to "err on the side of safety."
Although no problems have been found with Butler's Fire Ball ride, it remains out of service as the company does a top-to-bottom inspection, using X-rays, untrasound and other non-destructive testing.
Metal fatigue in the structure of the Fire Ball was found to be the cause of the Ohio accident, but both Polizzi at Cal-OSHA and Moyer at Butler Amusements agreed that the occurrence of such an accident in California is unlikely.
"Our rides are inspected about 30 times a year," Moyer said. Not just by Cal-OSHA, but by insurance company inspectors and independent contractors Butler hires.
"Safety is our top priority," Moyer said. "I have young children and I have no problem seeing them enjoy our rides. I have to sleep at night. And if I thought our rides were not safe I wouldn't be sleeping."
"We do 130 events a year, and we run hundreds of millions of patrons through our rides," he said.
When you look at the small number of accidents that occur each year, the numbers speak for themselves.