Safety Management Systems a la Disney

Safety Management Systems a la Disney

Dan Hannan

Dan Hannan


Mr. Hannan has been an EHS professional for 24 years and a subject matter expert for Vivid for four years.  Mr. Hannan is Safety Officer at Merjent, Inc. in Minneapolis, MN and is also the Chairman of the National Safety Council’s Safe Communities Division.  Mr. Hannan is an accomplished trainer and presenter on the topic of off-the-job safety.  Feel free to contact Dan at

It’s hard to turn off your hazard awareness radar when you’re a safety professional. I constantly find myself scanning for threats and how others practice safety, whether I’m at my neighbor’s house, grocery store, Home Depot or even on vacation at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom with my family. While visiting Disney, I realized their goal is simple but a tall one: make every visitor’s experience the most wonderful it can be and keep them safe. 

To do this, Disney must address not only the safety of its 40,000+ employees, but also the 45 million visitors each year to its parks and resorts. I can’t even begin to imagine how robust the safety management system must be to accomplish this. I’d say that to service the millions of visitors is about effectively processing volumes of people.  For rides alone there can be hundreds of people per minute per ride. Things can easily go wrong when dealing with this type of flow rate.

Think of the worst outcome at your place of employment - a fatality. Given the circumstances it is likely that the incident may make the local news website and easily spread through the web. For Disney, the death of a worker or park visitor severely threatens its brand image, with news headlines proliferating quickly through the web and media channels. A very high standard exists at Disney. It’s perceived as one of the most enjoyable, safest places on earth where “dreams come true.” There is nothing more sacred to a parent than their children’s safety and happiness, and that is the business that Disney is in.

What makes safety particularly challenging for Disney is that as safety professionals we know how unsightly and cumbersome safety can be. When you’re in the business of entertainment you can’t have that. For the visitor it’s about the experience, enjoying the moment without the distraction and burden of safety. To process some 45 million visitors annually from around the world your controls have to be fool proof, especially when dealing with the general public’s inability to do what is asked of them. Buckles, bars, straps and safety instructions must be easy to use and understand. Attendants must have trained eyes and ears to know when something is not right, and be within arm’s reach of a ride’s “stop” button.  Screaming children and parents on the brink of melting down make the chaotic environment a truly challenging one.

Mickey Mouse can receive citations from OSHA just like any other employer. Ride maintenance workers, new construction workers, performers, ride attendants, vendors and sanitation workers all have safety exposures. To address the variety of worker’s hazards, Disney must take the job safety analysis process to the 9th degree. Here are a few observations from my recent visit to several of the Disney World theme parks. I didn’t dare share these with my wife for fear of getting slapped for not turning off work and enjoying the moment with my kids.

  • I witnessed entertainers atop of floats and an animal care worker feeding a tiger from a perch. Each was tied-off with well hidden personal fall protection equipment. I’m sure many visitors didn’t recognize that body harnesses were nicely concealed in the costumes and that anchorage points were integrated into the landscape.
  • The “Lion King” stage presentation featured an entertainer twirling a baton that was lit with fire on both ends.  No more than ten feet away, in the dark dressed in black and hidden was a stage hand standing by with a fire extinguisher. I’m sure the performer’s clothing was flame retardant too.
  • With temperatures reaching 90 degrees, heat stress is a major concern especially for those daring enough to don an oversized character costume like Mickey, Goofy or Donald Duck. Each character “meet-and-greet” event for the kids was held in the shade. Assistants accompanying the characters timed each event to make sure that those inside the suits were not over-heating. I also noticed that ride and information assistants were positioned under umbrellas and all had water bottles with them.
  • Guardrails, chains, signs (in multiple languages) and attendants were effectively used to keep the non-conforming public out of areas where they shouldn’t be, and describe hazard consequences.
  • Disney’s commitment to safety is further demonstrated by their off-the-job messaging. In a National Safety Council meeting this past fall I had a chance to sit with world-class organizations that understood the value of developing a 24/7 safety mindset. At that meeting Disney had no less than three representatives there to talk about home safety.  The goal is to help each of their employees understand and appreciate the value of safety so that it becomes part of what you do wherever you are.

Disney gets safety. Do they have incidents? Yes, they do. But given the enormity of their task, it is truly amazing the degree of success they achieve. I’ve been to Disney World twice now and have absolutely no complaints about the experience. Both times were very fun and I felt completely safe in the hands of Disney. If you go, try not to think about the safety side of the business as much as I do… enjoy the moment with your family.

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