Hawaii Zip Line Deaths Raise Questions

USA Today: One worker died and another was critically injured when a zip line tower on a new course collapsed on the Big Island of Hawaii Wednesday, and the tragedy is focusing new attention on a wildly popular but largely self-regulated industry.

According to John White, whose Maui-based company Experiential Resources Inc. built the course for Lava Hotline, the course opened to the public last week. As a response to customer feedback, workers were brought in to make one of the lines faster.

Police say the man doing the test run — a 36-year-old from Maui — was halfway across the 2,300-foot span when the tower collapsed Wednesday. He fell about 200 feet and died at the scene. The other man — a 35-year-old from Ohio — was standing on the tower and fell about 30 feet.

As I noted in a 2008 story, the sport of strapping into a harness, clipping to a cable, and zipping across a canyon, down a mountain or through a canopy of trees — hence the terms ziplining and canopy tours — was popularized in Costa Rica more than a decade ago. The elevated excursions are cropping up across the USA, with estimates of between 150 and 350 commercial outfits, most of whom charge $75-$100 per person for a three-hour adventure.

In the USA, where shorter zip lines have been used as part of educational and team-building "challenge courses" since the 1960s, some newer operations are considered amusement rides and regulated by state agencies.

But according to Steve Gustafson of Experience Based Learning, a Rockford, Ill., company that designs commercial canopy tours, only four states - Florida, West Virginia, Massachusetts, and Missouri - inspect zip line operations.

There are least 15 commercial zip lines in Hawaii, and "it's not regulated as an amusement ride because it doesn't have anything mechanical or electrical," Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations' Audrey Hidano told

Two U.S. trade groups, the Association for Challenge Course Technology and the Professional Ropes Course Association, are working to update operational and safety standards specific to the zipline/canopy tour industry. But less than 10% of U.S. operators are members, officials estimate.

While serious zip line injuries and deaths are rare, "there are a lot of people with broken fingers or ankles from coming into a platform too fast," says Gustafson.

Among safeguards customers should expect:

-- Most zipline operations allow participants between about 70 and 270 pounds and require sturdy, closed-toe shoes. Hair and clothing should be kept secured and away from the pulleys attaching harnesses to cables.

--Expect a thorough briefing/orientation with details on staff training, company liability insurance and equipment inspections.

-- Operations vary widely, with some requiring customers to do their own hand braking and some using two steel cables instead of one. All should highlight such measures as safety lines that keep participants attached to a cable or platform.


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