I received an email recently from a reader concerned about the photo on the cover of SRO's March/April issue, depicting a worker climbing a 30ft. tower used as part of the Super Bowl stage in January. The reader thought the photo showed the climber on the tower without a fall-arrest system in place. The man in the photo was wearing a harness, according to Mark Fisher, set designer. Fisher says the man — one of the project's engineers — was wearing a belt-loop harness, which is obscured by the fabric panel that was part of the tower design. He adds that strict safety procedures were followed during the Super Bowl, and that each tower, during rehearsals and performance, had a fully qualified rigger on it, supervising the ascent, descent, harnessing, and un-harnessing of all performers.

More important than that clarification is the overall issue of safety in our industry, particularly where rigging is concerned. In light of the tragedy in May in which a spotlight technician was killed in a 45ft. fall while preparing for a David Bowie show in Philadelphia, as well as other incidents in the last year, it's fair game to wonder how and why such things still happen in an era of supposedly higher standards, better equipment, and training.

As several experts told me, the industry clearly is safer now, overall, than it was 10 to 15 years ago. Many related horror stories of risks taken by stagehands at rock shows over the years. Compared to those days, as Russ Drager, a longtime rigger and a partner in Icarus Rigging, Los Angeles, points out: “The magnitude of safety overall has increased 10 to 20 percent in the last 20 years — it's been extremely progressive.”

Still, Drager adds, “It's all relative, isn't it? Do all people drive strictly at 55 mph? You are aware that the statistical chance of injury or fatality increases when you surpass 65 mph, yet many people drive faster than that. But we have seatbelts. We have airbags. We stay alert. So we consider it a perspective thing. What is the personal risk you are willing the take? The mitigating factors? Almost all serious accidents on shows happen through human error in one way or another.”

In that regard, Drager explains, the staging industry goes by OSHA construction standards overall, but there are no specific, uniform standards for entertainment rigging and other related disciplines. Often, therefore, the level of risk depends largely on the individuals and facilities involved. He points out that organizations such as ESTA and its Technical Standards Program are working hard to improve this situation. But for now, standards and the application of those standards by those on-site simply vary. As a result, risks will be taken, and accidents will happen.

Karl Ruling, ESTA's technical standards manager, agrees, pointing out that press reports indicated the worker in Philadelphia apparently had a harness on, but that it was not attached or not attached properly to a personal fall-arrest system. Mistakes or problems with any of a number of steps in the safety process can lead to such tragedies. “Standards exist that if followed would have probably prevented the worker's death. However, the standards have to be backed up by worker training and clearly defined work procedures that make safe working practices the way the job is done,” he says.

Ruling adds that safety procedures have to be planned as “integral to the job, not as an add-on. Make hazard identification and risk management part of planning the work, right along with figuring out what materials, personnel, and time are needed.”

This is an issue we will be covering in-depth in upcoming issues of SRO.