Analyzing 2023 Incident Trends

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The zip line and aerial adventure industry has experienced exponential growth in the past decade, offering adventure enthusiasts thrilling experiences high above the ground. However, this surge in popularity demands an increased focus on safety and risk management. By examining incident trends and associated incident costs, we can gain valuable insights into the safety landscape of this dynamic industry.

Incident Trends

Granite Insurance has led an incident data analysis study over the past five years in which we have measured several critical data points. According to those data, incident rates within the zip line and aerial park sector have shown an upward trend over recent years.

In 2023, there were 4.5 incidents per 100,000 guests. In comparison, 2022 reported 4.3 incidents per 100,000, while the average number of incidents per 100,000 guests for 2018-2021 was approximately 2.5. The escalation in incidents underscores the need for continued vigilance in mitigating risks.

A note about “developed” numbers: The numbers referenced for 2022 and 2023 in this article are “developed.” Since some claims will not be filed until one, two, or three years after an incident, final incident numbers for a year are typically not fully “developed” until five years out. 

To account for that delay, we use “development factors,” multipliers that help estimate the eventual developed total for a year. For example, we expect the number of incidents we know about for the calendar year 2023 on Dec. 31, 2023, to grow by 3.5 times, as more incidents are recorded over the next five years. The development factor reduces each year that we go back in time, as the “development” or incidents that have not been reported shrinks with each year that we go back. 

Causation Analysis

The financial repercussions of incidents within the industry are substantial, with the average liability claim for 2023 amounting to $136,000.

Understanding where claims are coming from provides information you can use to prevent these incidents from becoming issues at your operation.

Delving deeper into specific incident categories, collisions emerge as a significant contributor, constituting 15 percent of overall claims and averaging $283,000 per incident. 

Passenger transportation incidents involving vehicles such as ATVs and UTVs account for 10 percent of claims, with an average cost of $400,000 per incident. 

Falls from height, though comprising a smaller portion of claims at 6 percent, still incur significant costs, averaging $128,000 per claim. 

Additionally, slip, trip, and fall incidents represent the second largest share of claims at 31 percent, albeit with a lower average cost of $1,500 per claim. 

Notably, inherent risk factors contribute significantly to incident claims, constituting 38 percent of total claims with an average cost of $7,600 per claim.

A note on causation categories: Based on suggestions from operators, we have changed the way we classify and measure claims. This year, we broke down incidents into different categories than in years past. We aim for these categories to be more easily understood and definable. For example, in lieu of the categories “operator error” and “equipment failure” (which accounted for an average 13 percent and 1 percent of claims, respectively) we now include “collisions” and “falls from height.”

Because of this change, it is difficult to draw comparisons with last year’s data and against the five-year average for collisions and falls from height. Passenger transportation claims are slightly above the average percentage for the past five years, but up significantly in average claim cost. Data for slips, trips, and falls, as well as inherent risk, are in line with the previous five-year trends in terms of both the percentage of claims and average claims costs. 

Solutions & Recommendations

Collisions

Reducing collision risks on zip lines requires a meticulous approach to communication and oversight, as a breakdown in communication is a common cause of collision incidents. It’s also important to recognize that incident severity rises as arrival speeds increase, and that most claims occur on zip lines with automatic braking, as these systems are most common when participants arrive at speeds that have the most potential for injury.

Some crucial steps to consider:

1. Employ distinctly contrasting terminologies for commands. Clear and unmistakable phrases such as “Send ‘em on down, Sally!” and “Hold, hold, hold, hold!” ensure participants and guides understand when to proceed and when to hold, minimizing the likelihood of collisions. 

2. Incorporate backup communication systems to address potential failures in primary communication devices. Establish alternative signals to ensure guides can effectively convey commands even if radios malfunction.

3. To further enhance communication clarity, implement visual signaling mechanisms, such as red and green lights akin to those used in waterparks. These lights provide a clear indication of when it is safe to proceed (“Green”) and when to hold (“Red”), offering an additional layer of safety and reducing the reliance on verbal commands.

4. Regularly audit guides and their communication practices to maintain consistency and effectiveness. Monthly assessments help ensure that guides adhere to protocols and reinforce the importance of clear communication in preventing accidents.

5. Furthermore, reinforcing communication signals and their significance during monthly staff meetings fosters a culture of safety awareness. Providing regular reminders and opportunities for discussion allows guides to share experiences and reinforce best practices, further mitigating collision risks.

By implementing these solutions and maintaining a proactive approach to communication and oversight, operators can minimize the risk of collisions. (For more on zip line communications, read “Successful Sending,” p. 58)

Passenger Transportation

While the industry maintains standards and protocols for individual zip line rides, protocols for transporting groups of six to 12 people in vans or UTVs along steep, winding gravel roads are lacking—but passenger transportation can pose higher risks than the activity itself. 

To ensure optimal safety for employees and guests during ATV, UTV, and van transportation, we recommend operators establish an approved driver list, with approved drivers completing the following steps:

1. Submit a motor vehicle report (MVR) and ensure its acceptability. The MVR provides an overview of an employee’s traffic violations over the past five years.

2. Develop company driving rules and procedures that approved drivers must review and adhere to.

3. Conduct vehicle training for each driver with an experienced operator, covering:

An overview of the vehicle and its functionalities.

A ride-along with a trainer to identify common blind spots and offer tips.

A review of driving rules and procedures with the employee.

A review of the operation’s expectations of the employee as a professional driver.

The completion and documentation of a daily vehicle checklist.

4. Require approved drivers to pass both a written test and a practical (drive) test.

These steps should be internally documented for each approved driver, including the dates of completion for each step, and signed by both the employee and the trainer. Repeat these steps annually for all drivers and document accordingly. For more information on proper ATV, UTV, or van safety, refer to Granite’s resources page.

Preventable Incidents

These incidents encompass operational mishaps stemming from non-compliance with procedures, errors made during operations, or overlooking existing risks covering a broad spectrum of occurrences including, but not limited to, falls from height and slips, trips, and falls. The primary cause of these incidents often boils down to a lack of experience or training among employees in their respective roles. These causes are exacerbated by the current competitive job market.

To mitigate preventable incidents, several proactive measures can be taken:

1. Arrange for a thorough operations review at your facility, ideally conducted by a third-party evaluator. We recommend an operational review by a certified reviewer of the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT).

2. Establish and execute a structured guide development program. Recognize that a guide who has recently completed 40 hours of training may not be adequately prepared to lead a tour of eight individuals or manage the operations of an aerial activity. Design a program that allows guides to progress from introductory roles to supportive positions and ultimately to lead guide responsibilities. Celebrate each advancement, and embrace continuous development as an integral aspect of your culture.

3. Incorporate refresher training sessions into your program. Dedicate time during monthly team meetings to revisit specific technical topics. Encourage active participation by assigning guides to present the chosen topics. 

4. Document your training initiatives comprehensively. Rather than viewing development and training as mere checkboxes to tick off, consider them ongoing processes throughout an employee’s tenure with your company. Foster a culture of continuous team development, making it an inherent part of your organizational identity.

By implementing these strategies, you can proactively address preventable risks and cultivate a workforce that is well-equipped to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for participants.

Onward and Upward

As the zip line and aerial park industry continues to evolve, it is imperative to leverage data-driven insights to inform proactive safety strategies and mitigate risks effectively. At Granite Insurance, we prepare this incident trends report annually to help the zip line and aerial park community thrive and succeed. Thank you to each of our clients for empowering us with your partnership so we can empower the industry with these data.

By analyzing incident trends and associated costs, stakeholders can identify areas for improvement and implement targeted interventions to enhance participant safety. Through collaborative efforts and a steadfast commitment to best practices, the industry can ensure that thrill-seekers can enjoy exhilarating experiences while minimizing the likelihood of accidents and injuries.

We encourage each of you to take one small action step based on this study.

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