An interview with an ASTM volunteer who keeps amusement parks safe.
Standards quietly subtend everything in the modern world - the food we eat, the electricity that courses through our homes - a whole world of documentation lies beneath the surface and mitigates the risks we don’t even consider we’re taking on. A key part of our social contract is the assumption that the built environment is safe. Standards, enforced by regulators, ensure that the contract is upheld.
Take, for example, an amusement park. Riding a roller coaster would go from a pleasant adrenaline rush to absolutely terrifying if we didn’t trust the car would roll into the station with all riders in place. Luckily, the ASTM Committee F24 on Amusement Rides and Device has you covered.
ASTM International’s vast offering of standards is developed by a legion of 32,000 volunteers who lend their expertise to technical committees. We spoke to Michael Viechweg, Level 1 Inspector for the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officers (NAARSO), voting member of ASTM International F24, and the former task group leader of the F24.61 Air Inflatable Amusement Devices Task Group, about how standards are developed and the safety procedures behind the scenes at amusement parks.
Hillary Predko: Can you describe what working as an engineer in the ride industry looks like?
Michael Viechweg: I'm a mechanical engineer and 95% of what I do involves the registration and safety approval of amusement rides - the official term is submitting engineer. So, if you want to own an operator ride in Ontario, it's like owning a car. You'll have to have a license to drive the car and the car has to be licensed. My job is to help you get the license for your ride, and your job is to get your own license. I put the applications together, look through the documentation to see about compliance, and then I submit that to the TSSA [Technical Standards and Safety Authority]. Their engineers fire questions back at me, and then when everybody's happy and the ride is ready to be approved, they send out an inspector.
Part of my process is often doing a physical inspection of the ride. Sometimes if it’s an inflatable, which are all the same, I can write an exception for it. But if it’s something unique, I have to go there and do a test. The engineers at the TSSA needle me asking, “Did you test it?” So I’ll send a picture with a note saying, “proof of life.”
I'm supposed to ride everything I certify, but sometimes I recruit volunteers. If it spins, I don’t ride it. I have a waterslide to the test next week - right into a lake. I was born in the West Indies, and as far as I’m concerned there’s no warm water in Canada. So, I generally get volunteers to do the slide tests and for some strange reason, I have no trouble finding them.
There are things that, naturally, I will always do. I love racing, so I will always test the go-karts. There was a bit of an issue we’re trying to solve - testing the barrier systems. Obviously, you want to see that it will hold up, so I've driven into a barrier at high speed. It did not impress my chiropractor - I got whiplash! So, we’re talking to the TSSA about how to deal with that in the future - engineers don't have to be crash test dummies.
HP: Could you tell me a bit about how you got from certifying rides to working with ASTM?
MV: The TSSA follows a set of safety standards - when I started it was known as the Z-267. They began to look at the ASTM standards because they knew that the CSA [Canadian Standards Association] was abandoning the Z-267. During that transition, I started to look into ASTM standards because I knew what was coming down the pipe. I figured, why not join up? The membership gets you a list of the standards themselves, which makes my job easier.
I was working a lot with the inflatables standards, so I realized I should know what was going on behind the scenes. ASTM members can sign up for these meetings - the inflatables group has two major meetings a year. It turns out that the old F2374 was expiring, and the people on the ASTM team said they needed to fix this thing. I was asked to be the task group leader of the technical group within F2374.
The outgoing task group leader asked if I could take over her role - I was the ideal candidate because I was the most neutral. Within any of these sub-committees, there are manufacturers, operators, authorities with jurisdiction, and independent engineers like myself. I serve no master other than myself, and I have no hidden agenda to bias things towards my business - I don’t sell inflatables, and I don't control them.
HP: How do these different stakeholders negotiate what they want? Presumably, producers want to make as few changes to their product as possible - what are some other agendas that people are bringing to the table?
MV: One thing the manufacturers brought to the process was that they were upset that cheaply made inflatables, out of China or other places overseas, were coming into the market and they were getting trounced. So they wanted something to hold imports back, and the team said, “Well, you can't really do that, but what you can do is just raise the bar for everybody.”
So, there was an agreement to do that - raise the bar. We recognized the standard in place was weak to begin with that. The earlier version was about five pages long, and by the time we were done, it was close to 35 pages. The goal was to raise the standard because it was sorely lacking - to improve the requirements and to spell things out because there were a lot of vagaries in there.
We wanted to ensure we were creating a fair level playing field by raising the bar for everybody. In negotiating, the manufacturers, regulators, operators, and engineers like myself all put in their inputs. And ASTM invites any members who want a say - anybody who wants to vote can contribute input.
So you end up with a basic version of the standard and work from there on phone calls or video conferences, and those major meetings twice a year. Once you've got the wording out, the chair of the group submits it, and committee members get email notices saying there’s a vote coming up. You read the wording and you say whether or not you agree with it, or abstain. We ask that if you disagree with something, to actually call the chairperson and discuss the issues, it's quite a process.
HP: You were jumping on phone calls with people talking through changes?
MV: Of course, and it's not really a bad thing. Since we’ve worked together, I often know why people disagree, and they explain their position in more detail. From there, we negotiate. I might say, “Look, we want to do this, but may not be able to right now,” or “We're taking care of this in a different way.” Once you’ve worked it out, I’ll ask if they’ll withdraw the objection. If they don't, they’ll bring it before the group at one of the big meetings. We'll discuss how to fix it, and then if the group disagrees, it moves to a committee-level meeting.
Some people in my industry think ASTM is a faceless organization, and I've had to explain many times, “no, no, no, no, you are ASTM.” All members can make these decisions. So if you’re complaining about a team doing this or that, why not just join? You have a vote. I mean, you just can't sit there and complain, but you have a voice. Major corporations are sending their people to be a part of these groups, and they see the mom-and-pop operators and the one-person engineering operations as part of the industry. So, you should see yourself as one of them too. We’re making influential, big decisions on how you should be operating your business and you should be interested in that.
HP: There was a terrible inflatables tragedy in Australia a few months ago - how can standards protect against accidents like this?
MV: Within the F2374 standard, there are limits on wind speed and guidelines on how to measure and calculate wind speed. In the technical group, we developed calculations and methodologies to determine when winds get too high. That wasn't done in the previous standard. We also added how to deal with soils, how to put stakes in, and the minimum stake diameter. We would work off of other people's efforts - the engineers wanted numbers. So we incorporated findings from the tenting industry which funded a study on staking.
What was interesting is after we set up a specific diameter, a lot of people in the industry got upset saying, “Well, the stakes are too big, we should go smaller because anecdotally, they've always worked.” And the engineer's responses have been, “Yes, they would probably work, but the problem is studies show that anything less than one inch is unreliable.” As engineers, we like numbers. If I'm going to sit in a court of law, I need to be able to say, “I got this number from this study, this is why.” I can't turn around and say, “Well, in my previous experience, everything was fine.” So we're trying to be more technical, and when we see accidents like that happen, it is just heartbreaking because somebody felt that their uninformed choice was good enough.
HP: Do you think people at amusement parks ever consider ASTM standards?
MV: That's a big deal because when people find out what I do, they’re absolutely shocked to learn someone like me exists. I think there's an assumption in the back of the people’s minds that this work is just done. I remember the first time I showed up at a bouncy castle and there was a student, who walked up to me and asked, “How did you get this job?” I said, “I just kind of fell into it!”
An old boss made a comment to me, “I could see this industry going the way of aviation, where there's a lot of documentation.” In the years I've been at this, we’ve certainly come a long way with logging maintenance work, and there's a lot more follow-up on details. So myself, submitting engineers, the TSSA, and ASTM, we're all trying to raise the bar. It becomes personal for us because we are in the background trying to make things safe for people. Nobody gets paid to do ASTM committee work but it becomes a passionate thing.
Thanks to Michael for taking the time to talk about his work, and to Rob for making the introduction. For more information on ride testing, see this on-site video interview with Michael’s colleague Joelle.
Thanks also to the thousands of volunteers who make up ASTM International’s technical committees. All of this work - meetings, phone calls, calculations, and drafting - is replicated thousands of times over in every sector by people who care. If you have expertise you would like to contribute to the wide world of standardization, get involved.