Alaska Department of Labor considers safety standards for zipline industry

Attractions have become a popular destination for thousands of tourists

In this April 2007 photo, Matt Dspain of Alaska Zipline Adventures rolls down one of their seven ziplines in place at the Eaglecrest Ski Area. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

The state of Alaska may soon begin drafting universal safety standards for the state’s ziplines, which have become popular attractions for summer tourists.

 

In July, the department will begin a public process to determine whether the state should inspect and determine the safety of the handful of companies that operate in the 49th state. Ziplines, which in Juneau involve gliding along a rope through the forest canopy, grew out of techniques designed by biologists to study tropical rainforests close up.

Larry Gaffaney is president of Venture Travel, the parent company of the zipline operation in Juneau. He said by phone that without knowing details of what the state will do, his company is “philosophically and in concept” supportive of the state effort, since they likely share a goal.

“First and foremost to us is safety and making sure everybody has a good experience,” he said.

Since 2000, ziplines have proliferated in Alaska, particularly in tourist-friendly Southeast and Southcentral. That growth has taken place largely without state oversight.

The Alaska Department of Labor, in response to a public records request to the Juneau Empire, said it has no data on injuries or deaths caused by ziplines in Alaska. Neither the department nor any other state agency has a full listing of the number of ziplines operating commercially in Alaska, though a spokeswoman for the department offered a list of eight corporations it knows are operating here.

Deborah Kelly, director of the department’s labor standards and safety division, said “inquiries from various members of the public” brought the issue of zipline regulation to the department’s attention.

“Relatively recently, it kind of came to our attention that ziplines are out there, they are recreational devices subject to regulation,” she said.

Laws passed by the Alaska Legislature in 1960 and 1967 require “recreational devices” to be inspected by the Department of Labor for safety. Those inspections are supposed to cover all “conveyance(s) … used as a source of or aids in the promoting entertainment, pleasure, play, relaxation, or instruction.”

The state has regulations for amusement park rides, but it doesn’t have any that specifically cover ziplines.

Kelly said she is “not aware of any specific issues with them.”

“So far, we’ve talked to a few operators, and we’ve found that they’re mostly doing the right thing. They’re very proactive and safety conscious,” she said.

That doesn’t mean they’re without incident. In 2016, an Anchorage man named Charles Mobley filed a lawsuit against Stoney Creek LLC, which operates ziplines near Seward and in Talkeetna. Neither Stoney Creek nor its attorney, Tracey Knutson, returned messages for comment Tuesday.

Jill Wittenbrader, Mobley’s attorney, said he broke his ankle when the zipline’s brake failed.

“That’s essentially what happened. Our belief is that it should have been safer. There shouldn’t be a chance for a brake system to fail and injure someone,” she said.

“I think it’s smart that the state is looking at it,” she said of the regulatory effort.

Kelly said the lawsuit was unrelated to the start of the state’s work, but Gaffaney said high-profile incidents elsewhere are likely driving public interest.

“What I understand is there have been some issues at ziplines throughout the world, and as a consequence, people are taking a harder look at this,” he said. “That’s kind of put this on the radar.”

Alaska court records list no lawsuits against any of the other zipline operators listed by the Alaska Department of Labor, and the Empire asked Gaffaney whether he knows of any injuries from ziplines in the capital city.

“We run lots of people through our three courses every season, and those people go through and have a good time and get back on their ship and carry onto their next step. I don’t see injuries on our courses as being an issue,” he said. “In part, that’s because we take safety seriously.”

Juneau has two zipline courses, one at Eaglecrest and the other at the Treadwell Mine ruins. Only the Eaglecrest course is operating this year, he said.

The course was designed and inspected by the Association for Challenge Course Technology, Gaffaney said.

That trade organization offers inspections and certification nationwide for the “global challenge course, aerial adventure park, canopy tour and zip line industry,” according to its website. Several states, including Colorado and West Virginia, use ACCT’s standards for their state regulations, and the Department of Labor has been talking with the organization as well.

Other states use standards promulgated by ASTM International.

The state will hold a public meeting July 12 in Anchorage to take public comment on whether it should draft standards and if so, what standards it should use. After the meeting, the Department of Labor may begin the formal process of drafting regulations.

The route taken will determine how much it affects the industry, Gaffaney said.

“It could be no impact on our business to significant impact on our business,” he said.

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