by Joseph Martin
While we tout safety as a virtue, I have found that in many areas of our industry we are either non-compliant or ignore simple things we can do to make our jobs easier and safer. I find in our local that the membership does work safely. We are great about making sure enough hands are on a heavy object and asking others for help when it is needed. While this covers a major part of the issues we deal with assembling road shows, there are many details we miss, specifically with PPE (personal protection equipment) and fall arrest.
Fall arrest is far and away the worst safety equipment issue we face today in our venues in Austin. While there are some notable good things we stay on top of (fall arrestors in the Long Center box booms) these improvements are to a fairly modern building after years of increased OSHA regulation on high work. I know that it is practically impossible to ask for a fall arrest to be available every time we climb a ladder over 6 feet, but we need to question ourselves where fall arrest is practical and necessary. Would it help? Would it make the work safer and more comfortable to perform? For example, the hinged grid opening in the Long Center is a huge falling danger to anyone working around it. Never have I heard anyone from employee to management say anything about wearing harnesses near the opening, just to “be careful.” Note I’m just using this as an example, not to call out or shame the Long Center. Traditionally, riggers don’t ever have to wear harnesses on the grid and we aren’t used to bringing them up. But this is a special exception to that standard that has been overlooked. There are many other work locations in this town that need evaluation. Careful as careful may be, accidents happen, and the conversation needs to move forward to instill a culture of safety. Any task that presents a mortal danger needs to have a counter to take mortality out of the equation. I know that extra 5 minutes to put on a harness and clip off to the beam adds time to the day, but it could also save a life.
The worst offender of all the venues in town is the Erwin Center, where riggers climb the 110’ roof steel with no dedicated lines for fall arrest. The venue was built before there were any regulations regarding fall arrest. As a result, the riggers there, including myself, either climb without harness or use a harness mostly for equipment management. Only in extremely rare cases do we actually use harnesses for fall arrest and positioning. Everyone has to be vetted as a safe, experienced climber/rigger to be allowed on the steel. That doesn’t change the fact that every time riggers go up, they are at risk of losing their lives.
If I make any points in this article, my biggest one would be that even with years of experience and practice, the danger is still present. And wouldn’t it be great if that danger didn’t have to be so dangerous? As professionals doing a dangerous job, we deserve to have the necessary systems in place to prevent death. While not a union venue, many of us work at the Erwin Center and need to work harder to instill a culture of safety and encourage our brothers and sisters to use the tie-off method they find comfortable and safe. For me, it involves taking a 22kn climbing sling, basketing the beam or safe tie-off point nearby, and clipping it into my central front positioning ring. This allows for clean movement along the beam, and, in the event of slippage or an accident pulling me off the beam, I would slide off to the side or under it, within easy distance to pull myself back up without taking the damaging shock load of a fall on a shock absorbing lanyard. This also prevents the need for a rescue operation, which would need to happen within 15-20 minutes of a fall to prevent death due to suspension trauma. It is important to note that my method works, but it is by no means standard and should not be taken as such.
Every industry related to construction/physical work is highly regulated in terms of safety, except for entertainment. We often feel like those rules don’t apply to us, but they very much do. OSHA is ramping up its stance on entertainment safety, and it’s high time. I have noticed more and more touring companies coming through with hard hat requirements. A show coming up at the Erwin will require all riggers to wear hard hats. It is important to note that a hard hat is not for the sole purpose of protecting your head from falling objects. Ever been hit in the head with a board or pipe someone was carrying as they turned around? I’ve seen guys have their temples busted open from getting slammed with a piece. Wearing a hard hat is not about how much you mistrust the people around you or above, it’s about protecting your extremely valuable head. “Nerdy” looks be damned. It’s a job not a fashion show.
There are many jobs where a hard hat is not required, and that is ok. We need to be aware of hard hats and their usefulness during large jobs such as Dell World, big road shows with lots of cases/things flying, and, of course, at the Erwin Center.
For us tall people, I have found a hard hat to be invaluable as my natural height puts my head closer to objects I have to duck to avoid. There have been a few occasions during installs where I have been crawling around in an unfamiliar ceiling and my head found the obstruction before my eyes did. Due to wearing a hard hat, I didn’t injure myself, just my pride. In the instance of Ballroom A at the ACC, I know a few riggers who have caught a roofing nail, scraping their head enough to draw blood. A hardhat in this instance completely eliminates that risk or even the minor annoyance of being occasionally poked in the head by a sharp object, which speaks to the scenario of making work more comfortable. Remember, it isn’t about how awesome you are or how long people have been doing it; it’s about eliminating risk and injury.
Without eyes to see with, our job is impossible. Drilling, cutting, grinding, and other fun particle related activities must be accompanied by the proper eye protection. A metal or wood splinter flying into your eyes can result in something minor as a single-day annoyance or as major as a lifelong diability. Putting on a pair of safety glasses is the easiest, fastest form of PPE and it is of paramount importance. Before conducting a particle related task, take 2 seconds and put on a pair of safety glasses. If you know a piece of overhead scenery has excess sawdust inside of it and will fall out of it upon removal, go get some safety glasses. If you are asked to do a task requiring grinding, go get the facemask. All the major theaters in town carry these amenities, and we need to be on top of asking for them before engaging in a particle related activity.
Safety-toe shoes need to be on everyone’s mind the next time they go shopping for a new pair of work shoes. I know there are many common complaints with this type of footwear among stagehands, but technology has eliminated many of those. Gone are the days of cumbersome steel-toed full boots. You can find great aluminum or composite-toe shoes that are styled like athletic shoes and weigh just a little more than a regular shoe. A foot injured by a heavy road case or piece of scenery will put someone out of work for weeks. Don’t let that person be you.
I wrote this article because I hate seeing and hearing about my brothers and sisters getting hurt on the job when the injury could have easily been prevented by a simple and practical solution. In 2015, we have already had 2 deaths in the stage industry. I don’t ever want one of those stories coming out of Austin. My intention is not to be preachy but to raise awareness of things we need to be thinking about.
The industry is modernizing. We shouldn’t be working like it is still the 80’s. Improvements in safety are good for us and our friends and family that care very much about our well being. If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for your mother/brother/significant other. Be aware of yourself, be aware of others, and stay vigilant in suggesting ways to make our venues safer, more enjoyable places to do what we love.