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Theatre Safety: Assessing Risks in Working at Height

By Dana W. Taylor on November 29, 2021 hst Print

The phrase “working at height” might offer thoughts of someone roofing your house or a worker up in a personnel lift. Neither of those images are wrong, but the term can also be applicable to a student performing on a 4-foot-high stage platform, a percussionist on a drum riser or a community volunteer stepping up on the high school stage to receive an award.

Height is relative and anything that places you above another surface is “height.” In general, working at height in our theatres is relatively safe. Catwalks and loading bridges have guardrails with mid-rails and toe rails; fixed ladders will have appropriate fall restraint or arrest. While no one should work in those potentially hazardous areas without proper training, the dangers in our theatres are typically far more commonplace and decidedly less exotic.

The Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA) created the ANSI standard E1.46 – 2018 Standard for the Prevention of Falls from Theatrical Stages and Raised Platforms. In the standard, facility managers are instructed to develop a Fall Protection Plan. In short, how will a facility address the potential for falls in their theatre? Please note, we are not addressing catwalks or other fixed elevated work areas, but rather the front of your stage, platforms built as part of a set, orchestra risers, choir risers, and similar pieces of equipment.

To start, you need to assess the risks in your facility and develop controls to mitigate those risks. Think about those things that are inherently dangerous and very likely to happen and those that are less dangerous and less likely to happen. You should walk through the space, look for issues, ask students and staff about things they have noticed, and address them accordingly. Some common risks are:

  1. Open Orchestra Pit in Front of Stage. Solutions include: placing temporary guardrails several feet upstage of the pit or a net or rope run between stage left and stage right proscenium walls. Even without an orchestra pit, these are good ideas for the front of your stage. One of the most common injuries in theatre are falls from this position.
  2. Elevated Platforms. Usually, elevated platforms used as part of a set require no barriers because the cast using them have been blocked (given directions for movement) and rehearsed. However, early in the rehearsal process, railings should be used to protect cast members. (These railings must be able to withstand 200 pounds side loading) After the actors know their positions, it is still appropriate to mark the edge of the platform with light-colored tape or contrasting paint.
  3. Stage Edge and Awards Programs. In the course of a year, most high schools will host awards programs in their auditorium/theatre. During these programs, community members and students unfamiliar with the stage and its potential fall risks are called forward. They need to be protected. In this instance, stanchions with velvet ropes, potted plants or flowers blocking access to the edge of the stage or even student escorts are reasonable solutions.
  4. Trip Hazards. Anything on the ground or on a platform that could cause a performer or technician to trip, especially in low light conditions, should be addressed.

As you examine your fall protection needs, use the following hierarchy of response to mitigate your issues:

  1. Elimination or Substitution: Eliminating the fall risk by removing the hazard or substituting a more reasonable solution and process.
  2. Engineering: Employing mechanical aids or guards to isolate the hazard from workers who could be injured.
  3. Administrative: Create and mandate safe practices and policies.
  4. Personal Protective Equipment: Provide appropriate PPE to protect workers.

Note that the hierarchy presented tells us the best solution is to eliminate the hazard; however, that is not always possible. The last recourse is to provide appropriate protective equipment and ensure it is being used correctly. There are times when school administrators will simply mandate that no students are allowed to go to the catwalks or to use the counterweight system or power tools. This is unfortunate as these systems are part of the vocational work and skills training of the theatre. With appropriate training and supervision, students are fully capable of doing much of this work.

Your fall protection plan is designed to be in effect at all times and will address all uses of your facility. Those times include when your stage is in use for a play or between productions, before and after concerts, while setting up for events, or striking them. It is in effect for facility tours and when outside workers are repairing something on stage. It is a written document shared with all who routinely work in the space, and its procedures and policies are clearly stated and enforced. The plan will describe your processes of protection and response to accidents. It is always up for revision and is revised every time there is an accident or a near miss.

“A reasonable fall protection plan is both adequate and moderate. It does the job, but it requires no more work or effort than is necessary to do the job.” ANSI E1.46- 2018 4.2.2


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