The phrase “working at height” might offer thoughts of someone roofing your house or a worker up in a personnel lift. Neither of those images are wrong, but the term can also be applicable to a student performing on a 4-foot-high stage platform, a percussionist on a drum riser or a community volunteer stepping up on the high school stage to receive an award.
Height is relative and anything that places you above another surface is “height.” In general, working at height in our theatres is relatively safe. Catwalks and loading bridges have guardrails with mid-rails and toe rails; fixed ladders will have appropriate fall restraint or arrest. While no one should work in those potentially hazardous areas without proper training, the dangers in our theatres are typically far more commonplace and decidedly less exotic.
The Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA) created the ANSI standard E1.46 – 2018 Standard for the Prevention of Falls from Theatrical Stages and Raised Platforms. In the standard, facility managers are instructed to develop a Fall Protection Plan. In short, how will a facility address the potential for falls in their theatre? Please note, we are not addressing catwalks or other fixed elevated work areas, but rather the front of your stage, platforms built as part of a set, orchestra risers, choir risers, and similar pieces of equipment.
To start, you need to assess the risks in your facility and develop controls to mitigate those risks. Think about those things that are inherently dangerous and very likely to happen and those that are less dangerous and less likely to happen. You should walk through the space, look for issues, ask students and staff about things they have noticed, and address them accordingly. Some common risks are:
As you examine your fall protection needs, use the following hierarchy of response to mitigate your issues:
Note that the hierarchy presented tells us the best solution is to eliminate the hazard; however, that is not always possible. The last recourse is to provide appropriate protective equipment and ensure it is being used correctly. There are times when school administrators will simply mandate that no students are allowed to go to the catwalks or to use the counterweight system or power tools. This is unfortunate as these systems are part of the vocational work and skills training of the theatre. With appropriate training and supervision, students are fully capable of doing much of this work.
Your fall protection plan is designed to be in effect at all times and will address all uses of your facility. Those times include when your stage is in use for a play or between productions, before and after concerts, while setting up for events, or striking them. It is in effect for facility tours and when outside workers are repairing something on stage. It is a written document shared with all who routinely work in the space, and its procedures and policies are clearly stated and enforced. The plan will describe your processes of protection and response to accidents. It is always up for revision and is revised every time there is an accident or a near miss.
“A reasonable fall protection plan is both adequate and moderate. It does the job, but it requires no more work or effort than is necessary to do the job.” ANSI E1.46- 2018 4.2.2
Click to take the FREE Theater Safety Course offered on NFHS Learn!
Dana W. Taylor spent more than 25 years teaching technical theatre at Mt. Vernon Senior High School Fine Arts Academy in Mt. Vernon, Indiana. He is a writer in the area of technical theatre and for 10 years served as technical editor for “Dramatics Magazine” and “Teaching Theatre Journal.”