The spotlight technician who fell 50ft. to his death while working a David Bowie concert in Miami in May served as a chilling reminder that rigging remains a dangerous business, despite improved education and procedures in recent years.

One organization that's dedicated to improving rigging safety is the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA) through its Rigging Working Group. Based in New York, ESTA (www.esta.org) is a nonprofit trade association that represents the North American entertainment technology industry. Among other things, the organization runs a Technical Standards Program devoted to developing standards that govern the manufacture and use of various entertainment technologies, such as camera cranes, floors, fog and smoke systems, and photometrics, among others.

As co-chair of the Rigging Working Group, Mike Garl has played a key role in developing standards designed to enhance safety within the rigging profession. Among his contributions, Garl served as the principal author and math group chair for the development of E1.2, a standard related to the design, manufacture, and use of aluminum trusses and towers. Garl is also president of James Thomas Engineering (www.jthomaseng.com), a manufacturer of trussing support systems, spun aluminum PAR cans, and LED lighting fixtures with facilities in both Knoxville, Tenn., and Worcester in the U.K.

This issue, Garl chats with SRO about rigging safety issues and about some of the efforts ESTA is undertaking to enhance rigging safety.

SRO: What are some of the standards projects that the Rigging Working Group is currently involved with?

Garl: There are several of them. Besides E1.2, which is for trusses and towers, there's E1.1, which focuses on the construction and use of wire rope ladders. That document is in the final stages of being reaffirmed, having originally been completed and accepted as an ANSI standard in 1999. We are also working on standards for manual counterweight rigging systems, powered hoisting systems, fire safety curtain systems, and loudspeaker enclosures intended for overhead suspension.

SRO: Do these standards basically detail how to make these things?

Garl: They are not so much a cookbook on how to make them, but rather they provide a performance-base standard. For example, the wire rope-ladder standard doesn't stipulate how you have to make the ladder. As long as it passes the strength test, it's fine. The standard also talks about the proper use of the ladder. For example, it states that fall protection must be provided with the ladder. It also states that the ladder can't be longer than 50ft. If it's longer than 50ft., there must be some kind of platform where you can rest. It details that kind of stuff. It also talks about training people and about maintaining the ladders.

Similarly the trussing standard doesn't tell people how to make a truss. But we do tell them it must be engineered, and that it must be done by someone who knows what they are doing. For example, we state that welding must be done by certified welders that are working in accordance with American Welding Society standards.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a number of standards that will increase the level of safety in the industry. For example, in trussing, I know there are people who weld trussing in their garage. I saw some trussing in Knoxville maybe a month ago that was terrible. Now, this was just for a little tradeshow stand, but I hate to think of someone putting that up in the air and putting any kind of weight on it. That would be extremely dangerous.

And the thing is, when bad things happen, it makes the news. Like the unfortunate incident involving the stagehand that fell in Miami. From what I've read, it sounded like he didn't have fall protection. Now I don't know if he didn't have it, or if it just didn't work. But that's why we have the ANSI standards. If you are going to be climbing a wire rope ladder, you are supposed to have a harness on, and you are supposed to have fall protection.

SRO: When a tragedy like that happens these days, is the problem usually due to inadequate standards, manufacturing defects, or human error/inadequate enforcement or execution of standards?

Garl: I would say, more often than not, it's human error. I don't have all the details of what happened in Miami — I can only go by what I read. But I read he didn't have fall protection on. If that's the case, as a user, he should know better. It's an education thing. There is a lot of testosterone in stagehands. There's the attitude of “I don't need this; I've been climbing and doing this stuff for years and years.” But I know there have been a number of riggers who were very good riggers that have had unfortunate accidents. But if someone falls because they don't have a fall protection system on, that goes against what the standard says.

All we can do at ESTA is write the standards. Our standards are voluntary. We cannot as ESTA say you must follow the standard. That would be up to the local authorities and up to the production company. After all, people are working on their rig. If you are going to be a spot operator and climb up their ladder, the first thing they should tell you is, “Here's your harness; put it on.” They should train you on the proper way to put the harness on, train you on the proper way to climb up that ladder, and then make sure you are hooked up to the fall protection.

SRO: Are there also state or federal standards that regulate the rigging industry in addition to the ESTA standards?

Garl: No.

SRO: Should there be?

Garl: No. The problem is, who's going to write them? People that don't have a clue about what they are doing? I won't get started on my feelings about politicians. All I'll say is look at the United States Tax Code, and that's something that the Federal people deal with on a regular basis. It's completely out of control.

That is one of the reasons ESTA began the Technical Standards program. It's also one of the reasons ESTA began the Entertainment Technician Certification Program. What we don't want is government people who don't know what they are talking about telling us how to do our jobs.

There was a problem in England several years back where there was a collapse of a platform that an audience was on, and as a result of that, the government very quickly wrote a standard. And it is impossible from what I have been told to follow that standard. It just cannot be done. And that's because the people who wrote the standard are unfamiliar with the business and how it works, and so on. So that's why, on the Rigging Working Group, we have a broad range of people who are very knowledgeable in the industry. And in developing and working on the standard, they are minimal standards — a minimal level of safety. But it is something. At this point, if you walk into a theater, all the rigging that's in there, there is no standard currently in place for all that stuff.

SRO: Is it hard to keep standards up to speed with changing technology?

Garl: Not really. That's part of the reason why we are trying not to make the standards too restrictive. That's why, for example, when the wire rope ladder-standard talks about the actual rung of the ladder, it doesn't specify that the rung of the ladder must be made out of a specific material. Someone might come up with something much better than anything we thought of. So in the standard, we say that the material shall be such that when a 3in.-wide load of a 1,000lbs. is applied at the center of the rung, it shall not cause permanent deformation of the rung.

SRO: Still, is it fair to say that the rigging industry is a dangerous profession, but not as dangerous as it once was?

Garl: Absolutely. It can be dangerous if people allow it to be. We are very fortunate in that if you consider the number of systems — either concert systems or trade show systems or sound systems — that are being temporarily suspended on any given day, I think we are doing OK. But we can do better.

SRO: To do better, is it mostly a matter of setting more standards or of educating people about proper procedures?

Garl: It's both. Obviously you can have certification. There is a body of knowledge that has to exist. In the area of electricians, you have a national electrical code. Any electrician has to have a working knowledge of the national electrical code. So, as we develop different standards for the rigging area, then those are the standards that can be referenced for the certification program.

SRO: You mentioned the Entertainment Technicians Certification Program. Is that another project the Rigging Working Group is spearheading?

Garl: That is being handled separately within ESTA, but there are a great number of people working on it — everyone that has an interest in ensuring that rigging is done safely and properly. It overlaps with the Technical Standards Program, but is separate from it. Once the certification program is in place, it'll make it easier for production companies and venues to ensure that the people they are hiring to do their rigging are trained, qualified professionals.

Just because you were in the Boy Scouts and can tie a knot doesn't mean you can sit down and do all the different things involved in rigging. There is no doubt in my mind that, as the certification program moves forward, there will be a time when the traveling shows and the fixed venues can say, “I need a rigger,” and it must be a certified rigger, and there will be people who are certified.


Stephen Porter is a freelance writer who has been covering video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications for more than 16 years.