If you ask the average stagehand to name a dangerous occupation they might say a police officer, a roofer or North Sea fisher, but rarely will any of them think that working in show business poses real dangers.
The sad fact is that many stagehands and techs get seriously injured each year working on shows. Even sadder is many of these accidents could have been avoided if people had followed the safety rules and/or had worn the proper safety equipment. Now that shows have returned and many of us are working on gigs again, lets take a moment to talk about safety. Many folks working in production are injured each year working shows and events – here are guidelines to help reduce the potential for incidents and accidents on job sites.
OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is a regulatory agency of the United States Department Of Labor and its mission is to “assure safe and healthy working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, education and assistance.” Employers and workers need to follow OSHA standards when on the job to ensure a safe workplace.
Employers have a duty to protect employees by establishing safe procedures, following OSHA guidelines on safety and requiring workers to follow procedures and wear PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) when required. Workers also need to follow the rules, actually wear the safety equipment and look out for dangers to themselves and others.
PPE is the name for any safety gear a worker wears, such as gloves and safety glasses. Let’s start by taking a look at some of the various PPE common in our industry.
Hard hats: A type of helmet used to protect the head from falling objects, impact or scrapes with objects and electric shock. A suspension system inside the helmet helps spread the force of any impact over the top of the head. Many hard hats can have other safety gear attached (like a face shield or hearing protection) to help protect a worker.
Eye protection: This covers anything that protects the eyes from injury like wearing safety glasses while working with power tools or wearing welding goggles near a welder.
Face protection: Here we’re talking about face shields that help protect a person from say, sparks from a grinder, not necessarily a dust or face mask that protects the respiratory system of a worker.
Respiration protection: These items can range from simple dust masks to gas masks to masks that supply breathable air to the wearer. Anything that filters the air or provides air falls under this category.
Hearing protection: Anyone working in professional production should already be familiar with hearing protection because we work near loud PA systems. Ear plugs worn inside the ear or ear muffs that cover the ear to reduce incoming sounds are a must in our business.
Hand protection: Gloves come in many types. Some like “winter gloves” help protect from cold temperatures while “work gloves” provide protection against abrasions and splinters.
High visibility gear: These are items you wear that help others to see you better such as bright-colored vests and jackets with reflective markings.
Knee pads: For stagehands doing tasks like laying carpet, these can help protect the knees from injuries (ever kneel down on a screw?) and can also provide some added comfort.
Impact-resistant footwear: Steel and composite toe boots can help reduce impact injuries to the feet and toes.
Safety harnesses: A full-body harness and tie-off lanyard is required when working at heights. A “shock absorbing” type lanyard can help to mitigate the shock of a sudden stop if the worker falls.
Sun protection: While not “technically” PPE, I classify anything that can help reduce or eliminate sunburns like a wide-brim hat and sunscreen as PPE because the sun can do serious damage.
PPE should be inspected before every use to ensure it’s in good working condition and will help keep the wearer safe. Equipment should be maintained in a clean condition, given preventative maintenance and stored as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
Let’s take a look at some of the dangers we encounter on shows, how to avoid accidents and injuries, and what PPE we should wear to stay safer.
Slips & Falls
One of the most common injuries on any job is slipping and falling on a slippery surface, like one covered by ice or water, or tripping over wires or cables. Whenever possible, eliminate slippery surfaces by cleaning up liquid spills, removing ice, or shoveling snow.
All cables on the floor should be run away from where people walk (such as along the side of a wall) to minimize trip hazards. They should be taped down and cable ramps employed in high traffic areas not to protect people but to protect the cables themselves from damage. If a hazard can’t be mitigated, warning signs should be placed to alert people and barricades should be placed to prevent people from entering a hazardous area.
Falls From Heights
Falls from structures are another common injury on job sites, and they can have deadly consequences. Workers are required by OSHA to wear a harness and tie off whenever they’re more than six feet above the surface, such as working on scaffolding and truss as well as using aerial equipment like a “cherry picker.”
Workers who have to move about when working at heights should wear two lanyards and always have one attached to a point. In addition, they should have safety lanyards on their tools so they can’t drop them onto workers below. Further, everyone working beneath other workers (such as on a stage under riggers) should always wear a hard hat.
This sounds simple but… ladders should be set up correctly and workers should maintain three points of contact with the ladder when using it. Larger ladders can be quite heavy and unwieldy for a single person to move around so get help when moving them.
Cuts & Punctures
Things like paper cuts, splinters, accidentally cutting a hand with a knife blade and so on fall into this category. Many of these accidents are minor but the wound should be cleaned and bandaged to reduce the chance of infection. Wearing gloves eliminates many of these wounds as does staying focused.
Getting a hand pinched between to road cases or having an object fall on a foot are common. The best defense, again, is staying focused, and don’t put any part of the body in the way of moving objects.
While some gloves can help lessen hand injuries, steel-toed boots definitely save lots of feet from injuries. In addition to protecting toes, a good pair of boots can help reduce other foot injuries as well as provide ankle support during long days.
Many job site accidents happen when workers are using tools, especially power tools they’re not operating properly. Anyone using tools should be trained in how to use them correctly as well as what safety gear may be required.
When working with equipment like grinders, which make sparks, and sanders, which kick up sawdust and sometimes splinters, eye, face, respiratory and hand protection should be worn. It’s been my experience that one of the biggest cause of accidents with tools is workers using them incorrectly and/or without proper protection.
Lifting & Carrying
Stagehands are always moving something and many don’t know how to safeguard themselves from back or muscle injuries. A big thing lifting with your legs, not your back. Get help lifting or moving heavy items. Use a hand truck or dolly to move heavy/bulky items and wear gloves to protect hands.
Some workers wear “back belts” (a.k.a., lumbar support belts) and swear they reduce injuries. I haven’t yet come across solid research that backs these claims, and in some cases workers are exposing themselves to greater risk because they believe the back belt will prevent injuries. I was taught a long time ago that a back belt is just there to remind you to lift with your legs.
These incidents can be as simple as getting hit by a swinging door all the way to getting run over by a moving vehicle like a forklift or truck. Pay attention to your surroundings. Don’t stand directly behind or in the blind spot of a vehicle that might move. Wear high visibility gear so drivers can better see you.
If you’re driving a truck or a forklift, ask someone to help spot and direct you when moving as you may not see a person or an obstacle. When going around a blind corner with a forklift, it’s common for drivers to tap the horn to alert others that they’re coming.
Hitting your head on truss or pipes or driving a scissor lift through a doorway and smacking your head are examples of striking a stationary object. The best way to avoid injury these common accidents is to pay attention to what you are doing and to wear a hard hat to reduce injuries.
Electrical accidents are estimated to rank sixth among all causes of work-related deaths in the U.S. and are disproportionately fatal compared to other work-related accident types. Production folks deal with large amounts of AC power with sound, lighting and video gear, utilizing a venue’s power or connecting to generators.
While general stagehands may run “feeder cable” (separate cables that connect the ground, neutral, and hot conductors from the power source like a generator to a portable show power panel called a PD), only qualified and trained personnel should connect and energize show systems to power sources.
The U.S. National Electric Code (NEC) states: “Only Qualified Personnel may route, connect, energize or de-energize supply services.” OSHA defines a Qualified Person as “One who by possession of a recognized degree, certificate, or professional standing, or who by extensive knowledge, training and experience, has successfully demonstrated their ability to solve or resolve problems relating to the subject matter, the work, or the project.” In other words, don’t work with service power until you’re trained and know what you’re doing.
To reduce accidents, use a non-contact voltage tester or meter to make sure the panel or generator being connecting to is not live. Always connect the ground cable (green) first, then the white neutral cables, then the black for Load 1, the red for Load 2 and the blue for Load 3. To disconnect, de-energize the service and remove the cables in the reverse order of blue, red, black, white and then the green ground.
We’re exposed to significant sound pressure levels on most shows and events, so it’s vital to consistently wear suitable to safeguard hearing. NIOSH (The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) has standards that show how long a person can be exposed to various volume levels before they reach their maximum daily dose and the sound becomes damaging to their hearing.
Every hearing protection device – ear plugs and ear muffs – has a rating number telling users how much reduction, in decibels, that the item will afford. The higher the number, the greater the reduction and the better the protection. I recommend all stagehands buy a quality set of reusable ear plugs and keep them on their person at all times so they’re available when needed. (I keep mine in a capsule on my key ring.)
Ear muffs, which cover the entire ear can offer very good hearing protection, but often at the cost of comfort. Many folks find that wearing something that’s fairly bulky and pressing against their head to be uncomfortable, even more so hot environments. On the hand, they can be a blessing in cold environments, helping to insulate the ears.
While not technically rated as a job site incident, car accidents injure and kill many driving to and from work. To reduce the chance of an accident, leave home with plenty of time to get to arrive so you don’t have to speed. Pay attention while driving and stay off the phone.
Drugs and alcohol have no place on a job site. Both lower the ability to think clearly, move with coordination and spot potential dangers, creating a significant safety risk.
While working gigs is often fun, there are many dangers lurking. To reduce the potential for incidents and accidents:
• Pay attention at all times
• No horseplay
• Wear the required PPE correctly and inspect it before use
• Do the job correctly – cutting corners often results in accidents
• Take regular breaks to avoid fatigue
• Avoid drugs and alcohol
• Stay hydrated, especially when working outdoors in summer
• Lift with your legs and get help with heavy items
• Wear hearing protection when in loud environments
• Report unsafe conditions and/or potential hazards to a supervisor