"It's easy to make things go up and down, but not so easy to make something go up so that you're comfortable standing under it," says Tom Young of JR Clancy Company, a manufacturer of rigging systems, describing the challenge of designing, installing, and using rigging systems safely. That challenge is increasingly coming to the fore as shows become more complex, motorized rigging becomes more common, and - some say - maintenance becomes ever more hit and miss.
A reminder of how quickly spectacle can go badly wrong came on October 30, when the World Wrestling Federation announced it would take a $7 million charge against current-year earnings in connection with its out-of-court settlement with the family of wrestler Owen Hart. Hart fell to his death in May 1999 when a harness in which he was being lowered into a ring in Kansas City opened prematurely.
Bill Sapsis of Sapsis Rigging, who was likely to be an expert witness if the Hart case had gone to trial, said the wrestler's accident was a complex affair in which the cause of failure is by no means agreed upon. Still, he added, the settlement illustrates how high the stakes can be, in terms of both life and liability.
"There have been a number of fatalities in the last couple of years that were certainly avoidable," Sapsis says. And looking beyond deaths, it's almost impossible to estimate the number of lesser injuries, and losses in damaged scenery and equipment, resulting from unsafe rigging.
And Robert Watson, senior vice president at ProTech in Las Vegas, warns staging and rigging specialists not to focus narrowly on serious injuries. "It wouldn't take a fatality to put us out of business," he explains. In the glitzy Las Vegas showroom environment, he adds, "If you so much as scratch an entertainer, you can be blackballed."
Yet Sapsis says things are improving. "I did my first safety inspection in 1982," he explains. "In those days nobody cared. Rigging was still a very macho kind of industry where everybody was doing what they wanted. We've grown up a lot since then."
Mike Garl of James Thomas Engineering agrees, noting that "Years ago, there was the mystique of the roadie, but today we're much more sophisticated." Garl chairs the Working Group on Rigging Safety within the technical standards program of the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA). In recent years, he adds, "We as an industry are maturing and taking more responsibility for what we are doing."
Promoting Industry Norms The growing industry-wide concern for safety is one reason for the acceleration of ESTA's standards development activities in recent years. ESTA's efforts are accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which prescribes a detailed process of drafting, review, comment, revision, and balloting before a new standard can be adopted. Two ESTA documents have been approved by ANSI so far: ANSI E1.1-1999, Entertainment Technology-Construction and Use of Wire Rope Ladders; and ANSI E1.2-2000, Entertainment Technology-Design, Manufacture, and Use of Aluminum Trusses and Towers.
A variety of additional standards are pending, Garl says. These drafts address manually powered and motorized rigging systems, stagehouse structural requirements, flying performers, speaker enclosures for overhead suspension, arena scoreboard rigging, and portable boom and base assemblies.
ESTA membership is not required in order to participate in the standards process, and Garl urges anyone interested in the work to contact ESTA. More information on all these topics is at the ESTA website, www.esta.org.
Complexity Breeds New Standards Another factor driving standards development more quickly in recent years is the fact that the rigging business has simply gotten more complicated. Consultant Jay Glerum, for example, notes that many currently installed counterweight rigging systems were designed and built in "the old era of lightweight scenery," when stage scenes were built of muslin stretched over pine frames, rather than steel. "Today people don't want painted scenery any more," he explains, but dramatically more complex and ambitious stage sets are also dramatically heavier.
And they're often moving faster, as well. Young, who chairs ESTA's Motorized Rigging Working Group, observes, "These days it's not uncommon to see flying sets moving at 360' per minute and more." This speed is driven by a desire for faster scene changes or more impact on the audience. But it also means accidents can happen quickly and once in motion, can be very difficult to stop.
Rigging safety presents different issues in permanent or theatrical installations compared to concerts and other temporary settings, experts say. And still other problems arise when the two areas overlap - for example, when equipment or methods intended for temporary use is installed permanently. "You don't want to use a chain hoist for a permanent rig," Watson says. "That's not what it's made for." Chain links, sprockets, and other components all offer opportunities for failure, he adds.
What's more, rigs that can support their loads safely for a few days can still fail very dangerously when expected to continue carrying the same weight for months or years. Compounding this danger is the risk that, as Sapsis puts it, "Nobody is doing maintenance today. When I go in to do an inspection and ask to see the maintenance log for the winch system, I get blank looks. It's out of sight, out of mind."
Maintenance is one of four keys to rigging safety identified by Glerum. Rigging, he says, must be properly designed, correctly installed, regularly inspected and maintained, and correctly used. Failures crop up in all these areas, Glerum adds, but maintenance in particular "is a real problem in the industry. Management just does not want to pay for maintenance."
The sheer age of many counterweight rigging systems is also an issue. "There's still an awful lot of old, original-issue equipment out there, and the stuff is just worn out," Sapsis says. These rigs are found in all kinds of settings, but schools and community theatres are prime examples.
Unrecognized Dangers "High school is where the real danger lies," notes Watson, adding that many school administrations aren't even aware of the hazards their rigging may pose. That's because back in the 1960s and 1970s, Watson says, several now-defunct companies were involved in "questionable" installations in schools, including putting light-duty rigging in heavy-duty applications and using poor quality iron that is likely to fail under certain kinds of loads. "These systems should be inspected," Watson says, "and they should be inspected by a rigging person, not a lighting person."
The inexperience of high school operators also creates risks in using the counterweight rigging systems common to these auditoriums and theatres. Out-of-balance conditions, created for instance when a lighting fixture is removed from a bar without removing the equivalent weight from the arbor, are common. "The kids all too often are inclined to try to hold onto the ropes," Watson says. As a result, they can be lifted high above the floor very quickly.
Pros aren't immune to these risks, consultant Glerum says. He tells of a technician in a professional theatre who bent over to free a snagged batten lying on the stage and in a moment found himself clinging to the batten 70' in the air. "It can be like throwing your car keys to a 12-year-old and telling him to drive," Glerum says, stressing that user training and familiarity with owner's manuals and similar information sources are vital.
Sapsis notes that entertainment industry trade unions are becoming more receptive to outside participation in training than they have often been in the past. Manufacturers, Young says, are increasingly committed to "good operator's manuals and good user training. It's in all of our interests to raise awareness of safety."
This heightened safety consciousness will include more acceptance of the ESTA/ANSI standards as they are promulgated. The standards don't formally have the force of law, but participants say they could achieve a de facto legal status if enough buyers and builders include them explicitly in project specs. Adherence to standards could then become a virtual condition of winning jobs.
Of the ANSI wire rope ladder standard, Sapsis says, "Word has gotten out to the people who manufacture and use these wire rope ladders that there are specs, and this is how things need to be done, per a jury of your peers.
"Standards are an excellent step," he adds, "but in a way we're still in our infancy. People need to know these standards exist."