In this article, sports and recreation expert, Corey Andres, discusses some of the benefits and risks associated with zip lines and high ropes courses. The article includes an introduction into some of the safety issues associated with course design, safety equipment, and user actions.
Zip Line Safety
Earlier in my career, as a trained recreational therapist and as an intervention specialist for troubled children, I saw firsthand how zip lines and ropes courses can be used as therapeutic tools to help children overcome their fears and develop self-confidence. I also used zip lines and ropes courses in camp activities, leadership development initiatives, and staff training exercises. Throughout my many experiences with zip lining and my involvement in relevant training courses, I have developed an appreciation for the benefits and risks associated with this activity. As a sports and recreation expert at Robson Forensic, I often investigate zip line mishaps to determine what went wrong and why; I am still sometimes surprised to find a blatant disregard for safety on part of operators and participants.
Zip lines are complicated systems with specific standards governing their design, maintenance, and operation. It has been my experience that zip lines, when run in accordance with relevant standards, are tremendously exciting and offer benefits that far outweigh the risks. It has also been my experience that the engineering requirements involved in correctly designing these systems, exceeds the mathematical capacity, skills, and training of most people.
I still ride zip lines, I have even had my young children on zip lines, but I know what to look for and can determine if the operation follows appropriate standards. My advice to others, who may not possess my level of training and experience, is to beware; not all zip lines are created equally and some operations are significantly more likely to cause serious harm to you and your loved ones. Below I have provided some basic information on course design and equipment related to zip lines. I invite you to contact me with any questions on zip lines, whether they are personal in nature or related to your casework.
Regardless of the application and use of the zip line, there are common issues which need to be addressed to promote safety. Selection of the site, use of trees or poles, and corridor clearances are all critical elements to consider when constructing a course. The use of trees requires inspection from a qualified arborist to assess the health and vitality of the trees. Utility poles can provide more flexibility in course layout and design but require routine maintenance and inspection. The zip line corridor must be free of obstructions and requires daily inspection and routine maintenance to keep tree growth at a safe distance.
As a participant in zip lining you may be able to evaluate if the platforms are well maintained or show signs of rust or decay. You can also visually inspect the zip line corridor to evaluate general housekeeping practices as well as confirm that all riders have been removed from the line prior to leaving the platform. If any of these items are suspect or you are unsure if the zip line is clear, ask the guide to double check before you leave the platform.
ZIP LINE EQUIPMENT
Personal Safety Equipment requires daily inspection by the zip line operator. This equipment can include helmets, harnesses, lanyards, carabineers, pulleys, and trolleys.
Helmets should be inspected for fractures and proper operation of suspension and fastening system. Harness inspections should identify abrasions, stiffness, worn or broken stitching on the materials and check to make sure all buckles operate properly and that webbing does not interfere with buckle operation. Carabineers should be inspected for significant scoring, wear, cracks and distortion of the material. The operation of the gate and locking system should also be inspected. Zip line trolleys should be inspected for proper operation of moving parts as well as significant scoring, wear, cracks and impact damage.
The wire rope and associated hardware also requires daily inspection and detailed visual inspection on a regularly established interval. ASTM F2959 Standard Practice for Special Requirements for Aerial Adventure Courses indicates, the following items shall be considered in determining the continued use of the wire rope:
- Broken wires
- Displaced or loose wire
- Physical damage at impact areas on cables
- Visual inspection of impact areas on cables
- Diameter reduction
As a zip line participant it can be difficult or impossible to adequately assess hardware and safety devices. Here again, if you’re not familiar with the company that runs the operation, you may be able to evaluate the condition of the safety equipment. If safety equipment looks tattered and worn, you may want to opt-out of the experience. One hard and fast rule that I recommend is that if the only braking mechanism provided is a heavy glove used to squeeze the cable, don’t do it without proper training and practice. I have seen too many mangled fingers and collisions with trees and poles as a result of this braking system.
Patrons do share in the responsibility for zip line safety. If riding a zip line, it is imperative that you exercise good judgment and act in a reasonable manner and obey all verbal instructions and written warnings.
Corey is a sports and recreation expert, who specializes in recreation and sports programming, coaching, athletic conditioning, and youth camp supervision and administration. Corey is a competitive athlete as well as a professional educator with more than seventeen years of professional experience. Throughout his adult life, Corey has been actively involved in coaching school-sponsored and club sports. He is also active as a camp counselor and camp administrator for youth programs. Corey’s coaching, teaching, and camp counseling experience extends to children of all levels of mental and physical ability.