Let’s Be Safer, At Least in the Entertainment Industry

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    I was sitting on the couch yesterday with Laura, and I was writing some posts.  I remember turning to her and saying “babe, I hate writing about people dying.”

    I was looking back at the posts I’ve written about our brothers and sisters dying on the job or at a show, and those posts have more traffic than anything I’ve ever posted on JimOnLight.com – the world’s thirst for death and blood never ceases to amaze me.

    People outside the Entertainment industry have amazing reactions to the kinds of accidents we have in this business — a man falling 100 feet?  A roof structure falling onto a handful of people at a concert?  An LED video panel crashing to the deck onto people working below it?  These are serious accidents that attract the attention of people worldwide – and considering the number of productions and events that occurs every day compared to the number of accidents that end in bodily harm or death within our productions, we’re doing quite well.  Maybe not airline odds, but we’re doing OK as far as the stats are concerned.  But here’s the thing — what exactly is ok when it comes to the injury and death of our production and design professional brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, girlfriends and boyfriends, sons and daughters?

    This lighting designer submits that zero is the number that is acceptable.

    But:  as the government is responsible for making the rules and laws that we depend on “to keep us safe” on the job, it’s our responsibility to do what is necessary to remain safe at the gig, on the job site, and while the show is going on.  It is our responsibility to make sure that we can keep working safely just as well as it is the people who make the rules.  It is our responsibility as an active and involved industry to make sure that our people are safe on the job, and that they go home at the end of every day and night.

    Collectively, we’re really bad at being 100% safe in our business, and you know what I mean.  I have been just as guilty in my life as the next man or woman in this business, where opening night is just as important a deadline to satisfy as a wedding day or Christmas.  When I say you know what I mean, I’m talking about the standing on the top step of a ladder, climbing truss to “just focus that one spot” without a harness, maybe climbing an AP boom to focus without being hooked up to fall arrest.  Also in this category falls the common Entertainment industry trends of removing the legs from man lifts, moving people around in man lifts with them fully extended, and on and on and on and on.  When I was young and still climbed trusses, I’m sure I’m guilty at one point.  It took me learning what my life was really worth to make me start remembering that safety is way more important than some stupid show, some deadline.  It’s something that I am reminded of every time I have to write about another Nathan Byrd, another Dean Williams.

    Young production professionals and students of Entertainment Production and Design programs across the world, listen up:
    While it’s important to work hard and get the show or event done and ready on time, it is not important to jeopardize your safety to get something on a work list done at the expense of risking your safety.  Quite frankly, that last sentence should read “YOUR SAFETY IS NEVER EVER TO BE JEOPARDIZED FOR A SHOW.”  Just because that top hat is kind-of in there and you can only reach it by stepping off of the lift for just a second doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea.  You must think of what can happen if you fall – who takes care of you?  What happens if you’re paralyzed if you’re “lucky” enough not to die?  How will you work and take care of yourself and family?  Just because you’ve done it before and you’ve succeeded in being fast at your job because you cut corners instead of coming down to re-position the lift or ladder does not make you “good at your job.”  It makes you a dumbass.  That’s right — it makes you a dumb ass.

    How do you tell a kid learning how to do this kind of work that it’s so very urgent to get it done by the deadline and at the same time tell them that you can’t cut corners for their own safety to get it done?  I used to say this to students, and it always seemed to be a real eye-opener:
    What do you think is going to happen in most cases if you fall in some theatre or working for, let’s say, a production company doing a concert or event?  If you hurt yourself, the money to take care of you has to come from somewhere, right?  Taking care of someone who can’t urinate on their own anymore, let alone eat or walk, is really expensive – in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars a month.  What’s going to happen first and foremost in most cases in most situations, the company that controls the place you fell (if you’re lucky enough to have lived) is going to make sure it’s your fault, somehow.  We’re talking about a lot of money here, kids, they’re not going to just pay out without a vicious, nasty fight.  However, the chances are that you’ve already signed a waiver of holding the company responsible for damages you sustain on the site.  So once you fall and hurt yourself forever, you’re screwed.  This also means your parents are screwed; your wife or husband, if they stick around, is screwed.  Your kids, if you have them?  Screwed.  Your career?  Well, it’s screwed because you obviously didn’t care about it anyway to be careful enough to continue doing it.

    In chatting with a friend about this exact subject, the observation was brought up that the people hurt or killed in the accidents we’ve been having lately have been seasoned professionals, people who knew their job and did it frequently.  That’s all fine and good, but one thing is certain – if the seasoned professionals who have died were doing exactly the right thing, the chances are better that they would have survived.  Questions pop up in the most recent case of Dean Williams, who fell from the primary steel at the AT&T Center in San Antonio — why did Dean fall?  According to the news stories, [Dean Williams] had been wearing a harness connected to a safety line, Berry said, but he disconnected it to step around a beam, where he intended to reconnect to another safety line on the other side.”  Was Dean not wearing a double lanyard?  Why was he completely disconnected from the safety at any time up there working?  Do you see what happens now when even the most seasoned of professionals slips up, even for one second?  I bring up this accident in hopes that some young tech out there owning the road will see that you’re not going to win against time and risk.  I hope that maybe this also hits some older, more seasoned guys who are cutting corners with their future.

    If you were hurt on the job because something happened and you were hurt without breaking a rule, that’s something completely different.  I am not talking about that here.  This post is for the know-it-all kids out there with the eagerness of a puppy and a fear level lower than a Navy Seal who can scale vertical structures with the speed of Spidey and can climb out on a beam with no tremble whatsoever.  Let Dean Williams be your example of what can happen when you let down your guard for one hundredth of a second.  By all accounts, Dean was a pro.  He let his guard slip for a half a heartbeat, we all do it.  Let’s all quit letting down our guard together, as an industry.

    We’re awesome, we can do anything we want to do, as long as we do it together.  Please share this with your friends and family on all sides of the industry, let’s get this in everyone’s ears and eyes.

    5 COMMENTS

    1. Great Post Jim! – Though it can be easy to want to skip safety when you’re running behind, it’s never acceptable. Thanks for the reminder.

    2. I used to work in the rock and roll business 30 + years ago. Then everyone walked trusses, climbed steels etc. usually without the safety gear expected today. Mostly we did not use harnesses unless there was a good reason to do so such as needing to absail to a truss or motor, or in situations where there was an abnormal risk of falling. There were many fewer accidents then as you had to be aware of what you were doing there was no harness, no safety line, no fall arrest therefore you kept your wits about you and did not do anything that created a likley fall risk. As in the example given may accidents happen now because of safety equipment, the expectation that actions are safe or there will be a back up if you overreach or slip. Most accidents I hear about are because people feel “safe” due to harnesses and the like rather than take the care required when you know there is no back up, nothing, other than your care in the situation that prevents a fall and the desperate consequences. Indeed it is true that if you use safety equipment you have to be pedantic about following procedures however the existence of safety kit does not ensure safety any more than being aware, careful and making good judgements as to your own comfort and ability in any situation.

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