How to avoid a zip lining disaster -

How to avoid a zip lining disaster

Millions of people ride commercial zip lines each year. There are about 250 commercial zip line operations all over the country.

They're also popular with vacationers who travel abroad to tropical locations.

While there is some risk involved with commercial zip lines, people who take a ride on homemade zip lines are much more likely to wind up taking a ride in an ambulance.

David Coleman cut off his arm while riding a makeshift zip line between trees over a river in South Carolina.

"When I let go, I spread my arms out and my right arm caught the wire, the wire wrapped around, I fell in, came up. My hand was gone," Coleman recalls. 

After a 26-hour surgery at Duke University Hospital, Coleman's hand was reattached and he's still working to restore full use of the severed limb.

He was lucky. 

In recent years, deaths have occurred from homemade zip lines in Connecticut, Idaho, North Carolina, Oregon and Tennessee.

"I think the majority of the incidents we see are backyard zip lines or home-built zip lines, not built by a professional," says Robert Monaghan, executive vice president of Hibbs Hallmark & Company.

Monaghan's company in Tyler, Texas insures half of all commercial zip line operations in the country.

People can get hurt riding a commercial zip line, but Monaghan says the number of injuries are far greater on homemade zip lines, primarily because they are cobbled together. 

He advises against building a homemade zip line, and warns you shouldn't ride one that someone else built.

"Our recommendation is to hire a professional," Monaghan says. "These things look easy to build, but there's a lot of engineering that goes into them and lot of experience and skill."

America Now went to a zip line facility to find out the safety measures you need to know before you harness up and go flying above the trees.

Nick Wimmer is the executive director of Camp Canaan in Rock Hill, South Carolina. His facility offers a zip line canopy tour.

During portions of the zip line tour, people will be dangling from a steel cable at least 80 feet in the air.

Wimmer says its important to inspect all the equipment before your feet ever leave the ground.

"If someone hands me a piece of equipment that's frayed or doesn't attach right, or a buckle is broken, I'm going to have a lot of concerns," Wimmer says.

Loose or rotting planks on the platforms could indicate bigger maintenance problems you can't see.

Inspect the cables to make sure they're not rusting and find out the age of the equipment. Wimmer says it should be replaced every three years.

Riding a commercial zip line is a calculated risk, but riding a homemade zip line is just plain risky.

Before you make a reservation to ride a commercial zip line at any facility, find out if they are members of the Association for Challenge Course Technology or the Professional Ropes Course Association. Both organizations have standards for construction, training and inspections, all of which could keep you from getting hurt, or worse.  

Additional Information:

  • A worker was killed and another worker hospitalized after a zip line tower collapsed in Hilo, Hawaii on September 21, 2011. (Source: OSHA)
  • Most of the time, the adventurer companies abroad are endorsed by hotels and resorts. Typically, if a nationally or internationally known resort like a Hilton or Marriott is going to endorse a zip line company, you can pretty much have full confidence that place is going to be safe and established. (Source: Nick Wimmer, Camp Canaan)
  • Click to see a list of zip line Locations worldwide.
  • David Coleman's mother says her son has exceeded doctors expectations. He's rock climbing today and continues working out at the gym. He's in college now majoring in English. His mother says he wouldn't be able to do these things without the talented doctors at Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
  • The following information is from an article entitled "Zip Line Safety Information" published by 

    • For small scale zip lines, such as those on playgrounds and in parks, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends lining the entire area with mulch, wood chips, sand or fine gravel to soften the impacts from heights greater than 5 feet.

    • According to specialty insurer The Redwoods Group Foundation, there are four main areas of zip lining you must think about in relation to their safe usage: design, installation, maintenance and supervision. The cable, pulley and harness systems used for on a zip line must adequately support the rider's weight and beyond. When the system is installed, it should be securely anchored at both ends and a safety landing area should be present. Regular maintenance inspections of all equipment used should be carried out and documented. If maintenance issues are discovered, the zip line should be closed until those areas are corrected. Zip line riders should be monitored at all times by trained professionals and should be given a safety course before use.
    • Commercial zip lining operations like Kapalua Adventures in Maui utilize industrial-grade steel cables and carbon-fiber pulleys to ensure maximum safety for their riders. Though the danger of falling off of the cable is obvious when zip lining, a secondary danger that can be nearly as serious is stopping at the end of the ride. All zip lines should be equipped with an anchoring mechanism that stops the rider safely before reaching the anchoring post. A safety helmet and back-up line should always be used on zip lines where serious injury is a possibility.
    • Features that contribute to injuries on a zip line most frequently are inadequate monitoring, use by underage or undersized riders and failure of safety equipment. Users should be made aware of all possible dangers prior to zip lining, and when applicable should sign user agreements stating that they have been educated on these dangers.

    • Regular inspections of all equipment are key for the prevention of injury on a zip line. Annually documented inspections of all cables, anchor points, pulleys and fall zone protections should be done, and the documents should be retained for three years. Daily inspections should be carried out on all starting platforms, carriage assemblies, riding handles or seats and safety harnesses. Also, any maintenance work done on a zip line rig should be documented.

    • Some zip line operators feel the industry needs complete safety regulations to look at the build and operation to make sure accidents don't happen.

    The following information is from the Association of Challenge Course Technology.

    • Make sure the zip line course is inspected by a third party inspector (other than the company who built the course) to ensure that an outside party has reviewed the installation before opening for business.
    • How can I (a participant) be sure that a particular Zip Line/Canopy Tour is safe? You can research what standards the course is built to meet, as well as their process for training their guides. If you are in doubt, you can ask to see a copy of their inspection report and find out if they are fully insured.
    • Will a Cruise Line normally offer the best quality Canopy Tour? Not necessarily. Sometimes Cruise Lines will choose the tour that is the closest to the ship and more convenient for them. However, they do typically ensure that the tours they work with have the proper insurance in place. Research it yourself before you decide.
    • Though zip lines and canopy tours began as a tool for scientific inquiry and evolved into a means of showing off the forest to the general public, many courses now are designed first and foremost to provide thrills and excitement. As the Fodor's online travel site puts it: "There are two basic types of canopy (zip line) tours: one that gives you a chance to see treetop animals up close; and one that lets you behave like them." These days Canopy Tours are often also referred to as Zip Line Tours, especially when they are not actually built in the trees of the forest canopy. Such courses are frequently installed on poles or towers, usually in the middle of a scenic landscape and often as a part of a recreation park or ski resort. Canopy Tours and Zip Line Tours have become big business, generating some $120 million in annual revenues in Costa Rica alone. The cruise lines which ply the waters along the Pacific coast and around the Caribbean provide a huge market for expansion and have helped spawn much of the recent construction in the Temperate Rainforest regions of the Alaskan Inland Passage. Ski Resorts increasingly install courses to round out their recreational offerings.

    Copyright 2012 America Now. All rights reserved.

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