From Cables and Booms to Nuts and Bolts, Inspectors Make Sure Tulsa State Fair Rides are Safe Before Opening
By Stetson Payne | Tulsa World
All Photos: Mike Simons | Tulsa World
With the hours counting down before the 2019 Tulsa State Fair kicks off, state and local inspectors are heading into an intensive schedule of testing to make sure the fair’s rides and food are safe.
At a news conference Wednesday morning, Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Leslie Osborn spoke about the commission’s work that will continue through the fair’s 11 days. Oklahoma is one of 30 states that mandate inspections of amusement park rides, from the roller coasters at Frontier City down to the bumper cars at the fall carnival, and Osborn said the state fair is no exception.
“Every minute that the midway’s open at the Tulsa fair, we’ll have at least one Department of Labor employee here just doing an extra set of eyes besides the vendor,” Osborn said. “It’s the 37th year that it’s been in state statute that we do inspect rides for public safety.”
Amusement rides are inspected first during construction before being certified with a Labor Commission stamp ahead of Thursday’s opening. The inspections are done in part with the vendor, North American Midway, which has returned to the Tulsa State Fair for its fourth year. The team of eight inspectors looks over rides from cables and booms down to the nuts and bolts to make sure they’re built to engineers’ standards, Osborn said.
Every day before the midway opens, inspectors will check the rides and operators again to make sure no problems, including creaks, squeaks and groans, have arisen. By the time the fair wraps up Oct. 6, the approximately 65 rides will have been inspected more than 700 times combined. Although inspectors work to keep rides safe, Osborn said it’s up to riders to follow the rules.
“Don’t try to stretch putting your kid in a ride that they’re not tall enough for,” Osborn said. “I’ll see parents come up and say, ‘Stand on your tiptoes.’ Not really sure, as an overprotective parent when my kids are little, why you would do that, because they’re specified for your safety. … And obviously also do what the ride says. Don’t wave your arms around. Don’t do anything you’re not supposed to do.”
As inspectors check the nuts and bolts, Tulsa Health Department inspectors are at the fairgrounds to make sure fair food is safe no matter how crazy or deep fried it might be.
For Ashley Davis, a mobile food inspector and the special events coordinator at the Tulsa Health Department, the state fair is about as big as it gets for her job. For every food vendor at the fair, there’s a stringent inspection process that begins often before the tents and trailers set up on the midway or in the buildings.
“Our side starts about a month in advance when I get the vendors’ list from Expo Square when they start booking them,” Davis said. “I start reaching out to the vendors making sure they know the safety and sanitization standards before they even get on site. Then the Monday before the fair comes around, I come out here and check all the water connections, water sources, make sure everything is good to go before we start licensing our vendors.”
Between Tuesday and when the fair opens Thursday, Davis said the Health Department will have conducted inspections of all 240 vendors, and each will be inspected another three times before the fair ends. Davis said the intensive inspection schedule is in part because vendors are only in town for a short period of time and because so many things can affect food safety.
Although inspections aren’t that different from those conducted at brick and mortar restaurants across Tulsa, Davis said the fair presents unique challenges. Potential rainwater has to be accounted for, keeping it away from equipment and the food. Losing power at the midway can cause problems with refrigeration.
There’s also the frustrating problem of public enemy No. 1 at the fair: the flies. Davis said the fly all but becomes the state bird at the fair, and she said vendors often remark how strict rules are concerning screening and airflow. Through all that, many of the vendors are from states with different standards, and it’s Davis’ job to make sure they’re cooking by Oklahoma’s rules for the fair.
Above all, Davis said she hopes the work keeps the fair food as good as it can be for Tulsa.
“We work better if we act as a team and work with the vendors,” Davis said. “Our goal isn’t to shut somebody down, it is to educate and keep everybody healthy in the sense of safe food, not necessarily the fried food and the food choices out here.”