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Heroin Bust of North Carolina Ride Inspector Trainee Raises Serious Questions About Oversight
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An arrest of a North Carolina amusement ride inspector for drug possession during a fair last month has called into question the credibility of the inspection system. The crux of the problem is that while background checks and drug testing have become standard practice for carnival companies, similar procedures seem nonexistent for monitors of the midway inspection system. 

The Queen Charlotte Fair is an early Spring Event in Concord North Carolina, an event that runs March 28 through April 14 and is held at Route 29 Pavilion, near Charlotte Motor Speedway. A family-oriented fair that included a midway by Amusements of America and this year, an impressive range of entertainment, including the Belmont Festival of Magic featuring illusions, humor and lots of surprises, the Wall of Death wild wheels thrill show and the gravity-defying BMX Madness bike show.

Heroin & Syringe 

On March 29, Matthew Daniel Blanton, an inspector for the North Carolina Department of Labor Standards & Inspections Division (NCDOL) was arrested for heroin possession by the Cabarrus County Sheriff Department By most accounts, Blanton had parked his car illegally in a parking garage adjacent to the fairgrounds. The parking attendant called the sheriff's department, who had reason to search the car and found less than a gram of heroin and drug paraphernalia, including a syringe and spoon.

Blanton had been hired by the Department on Sept. 26, 2018, as an elevator inspector for the N. C. Department of Labor Standards & Inspections Division  and was still operating under the mandatory one-year probationary period during the time of arrest. Reportedly, he was working under the supervision of two senior inspectors and was assisting in completing  inspections during the day of his arrest. According to Dolores Quesenberry, Director of Communications, NCDOL, “the inspection process was in progress…  Blanton did not have the authority to certify a ride. Blanton was in training and was not able to certify an amusement device in North Carolina.”

Quesenberry stressed: “ Blanton was in probationary status. He did not conduct inspections independently and was operating under the supervision of a senior inspector.”

No Drug Testing 

The NCDOL follows the N.C. Office of State Human Resources Drug and Free Workplace Policy, which has no mandated drug testing requirement. The policy merely contains a warning:  “An employee who reports to work under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs, or who manufactures, uses, dispenses, purchases, sales, possesses or distributes alcohol or illegal drugs in the workplace shall be subject to discipline, up to and including dismissal.”

Blanton was never drug tested as either a perquisite for employment or a condition of continued employment, which was in keeping with department policy. “There is no mandatory pre-employment drug testing in state government,” said Quesenberry. “If a supervisor suspects drug use, he can request a drug test.”

Blanton was released on bail with a court date of April 26th. Surprisingly, the terms of his present and future status as an inspector of North Carolina rides is not known. “This is an ongoing personnel matter and we simply cannot comment on the status of his employment at this time,” said Quesenberry.  

The Blanton arrest during a fair was a first for the NCDOL. “The department has had no similar incident,” said Quesenberry. In terms of what changes the department will make following the incident, Quesenberry said. “There is not enough information at this time”  for the department to devise much less implement any policy changes.

The drug arrest of a North Carolina ride inspector raises a host of questions about a process that sometimes suffers from a lack of transparency, consistency and an adequate appeal procedure. North Carolina is one of about 20 states that do not follow certification and other procedures recommended by the National Association of Amusement Ride  Safety Officials(NAARSO), which can be troublesome to carnival companies who often complain about a lack of objective standards or adequate appeal process. Without an objective protocol, like the one espoused by NAARSO,  carnival companies often feel that in states such as North Carolina, inspector decisions can seem arbitrary and midway providers have no recourse, unlike inspection protocols followed in other states.

Further complicating the issue is the lack of drug testing at the inspector level, a fact now under scrutiny following the Queen Charlotte Fair incident. Even NAARSO has no drug testing policy – or recommendation for one – in its guidelines or as part of its certification program.

Unmonitored Monitors

For ride companies, the situation is particularly irksome since nearly all major ride companies have a strict and rigorously enforced drug testing program, which includes not routine background checks but also include random drug testing during employment. A drug-free midway has become an industry standard and these employee policies are both promoted by the ride companies and now expected by fairs, festivals and other events. Drug free midways are conducive to safety as well as enhancing the familial, wholesome atmosphere crucial for the success of the outdoor events carnival companies typically play.

Carnival companies seem justly outraged that there are not just held to a higher standard than the authorities inspecting their rides, but the lack of inspector transparency undermines the very purpose of local ride inspection: public safety.

“Every major carnival company has a drug testing policy,” one carnival company owner told Carnival Warehouse. “They are very strict and it is very difficult, because ride companies can have a lot of turnover, people can come and go, so having drug testing and random drug testing is a hardship and expense. But we have to maintain a consistent drug testing program, which we gladly do. The inspectors have the authority to put a fair and a carnival company out of business, but they have no accountability, especially in North Carolina. They hold us to a higher standard than they hold themselves.”

The larger question is that because of a lack of any national standard of inspector behavior or protocol, the fact is there's no objective ruling body to regulate inspectors. In other words, no one is in charge of watching the watchers. “Carnival companies are in the business of safety. If your employees have sobriety problems, you will have a reputation and no fair will hire you. I think most carnival companies resent the fact there's no one with authority over those who have authority over you and that puts the safety of the public at risk.”, said the carnival owner.
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