Federal investigators from the Department of Labor said the death of a zip-line worker in North County last fall could have been prevented if La Jolla Zip Zoom Zip Line had "implemented required safety measures."
The business, which is located on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in Pauma Valley, neglected to install a safety net, guard rail or personal fall arrest system, according to a news release officials sent out Thursday.
Joaquin Romero, 34, died Oct. 30 trying to help a customer who had just finished the course, according to the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office.
"After grabbing a zip-line harness on a customer to steady them as they landed on the tower platform, the worker and the customer were both pulled off the zip-line tower," stated the news release issued Thursday. "The worker let go of the harness and fell about 50 feet to the valley floor."
Investigators also determined that La Jolla Zip Zoom Zip Line failed to train its worker on recognizing fall hazards and did not "assess the workplace to determine the presence of hazards and did not report a work-related hospitalization within 24 hours."
“La Jolla Zip Zoom Zip Line failed to meet their obligation to protect their employees,” San Diego OSHA area director Derek Engard is quoted as saying in the news release. “If they had simply provided the proper protective equipment, this senseless tragedy could have been prevented.”
Zip Zoom Zip Line has been cited for four serious safety violations, according to the Department of Labor, and faces nearly $25,000 in fines.
Romero's broken body sustained multiple blunt-force injuries during his fall. He was taken by paramedics to Sharp Memorial Hospital in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego.
"He arrived pulseless and [CPR] was initiated," the medical examiner's office said at the time. "Following admission, the decedent was diagnosed with multiple blunt force injuries. The decedent was given a poor prognosis and family decided to place him on comfort care measures which were administered until his death …"
The Medical Examiner's Office said Romero died while trying to help a customer who had just finished the course at the La Jolla Zip Zoom Zip Line.
A San Diego attorney told NBC 7 in November 2021 that it never should have happened.
"That incident should never have occurred," attorney Bill Berman said. "Numerous safety protocols were breached that resulted in this tragedy. The operator should have been clipped onto the line himself wearing a safety harness. It’s fundamental operational rules."
Berman is not directly connected to this case but settled a suit against another zip line operator three years ago after a serious injury accident in Escondido. He said riders and ride attendants should be clipped in and harnessed at all times, even when on the receiving platform.
"There was obviously a breakdown in policies and procedures," Berman said.
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Berman suspects that's because many zip lines are standalone rides — meaning they're not part of an amusement park, which he says makes them less likely to get a visit from a state OSHA inspector.
"So the problem we see with the zip line rides is they’re not well-regulated," he explained.
"We, as the general public, place a great deal of trust into the ride operators and the owners of these ride attractions."
According to the co-author of a study looking at zip line injuries, there were only 10 commercial zip lines in the U.S. in 2001. At the time of the incident in Pauma Valley, 57 commercial zip line courses operate in the state of California alone, which only started regulating them in 2014.
"These are amusement rides," Berman said. "They’re popular. They’re fun. They’re exciting, so it’s really important that these ride owners and operators do their utmost to ensure these rides are being properly maintained and properly used."
Because the La Jolla Zip Zoom Zip Line is on tribal lands, it is not subject to Cal OSHA inspections. That responsibility falls under federal OSHA.
It seems there was no shortage of people who cared for the victim. An online fundraiser for Romero's funeral received more than $25,000 above its goal.
La Jolla Zip Zoom Zip Line advertises itself as the longest zip line course "of its kind" in California. Its course is more than a mile long, reaches 55 mph and at times is more than 2,700 feet off the ground.
The owners of the ride have 15 days from receipt to respond to the citations and proposed financial penalties.