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Live Event Safety Standards: More Important Than Ever

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Live Events; Standards

Date: December 2011

Putting on live events, particularly outdoor concerts, can be a no-win proposition. When a concert goes off without a hitch, few recognize the hard work that the crew put into ensuring that both performers and audience enjoyed a safe show. When organizers cancel an event due to unforeseen circumstances, such as last summer’s Black Eyed Peas concert in New York’s Central Park, which was shut down for violent weather, fans cry foul. (The concert was eventually held in October – in a much gentler rain.) And when tragedy befalls an event such as last August’s Indiana State Fair, during which a stage collapse claimed seven lives, everyone wants to know how it could have happened — or been prevented.

“That Black Eyed Peas concert made the news because 20,000 people who had waited all day were really angry. As you can see, there are no clean answers as to how to manage safety so that everyone is happy,” says John Huntington, Professor of Entertainment Technology at New York City College of Technology (CUNY).

But there are industry standards to help live events professionals ensure safety at concerts and other performances. Whether they’re followed and to what extent is another matter.

Chain of Disasters
On August 13, 2011, a stage collapsed during a powerful storm at the Indiana State Fair, falling on fans who were awaiting the start of a concert by country band Sugarland. An announcer had warned the crowd of an approaching storm, but did not call for an evacuation. Five days later, the Pukkelpop music festival in Hasselt, Belgium, suffered an eerily similar fate when its main stage scaffolding collapsed in a sudden storm, killing five people and injuring about 140.

“The chain of disasters this year should have been a clue to event producers around the world,” Huntington says. “There are so many shows where producers do the right thing and nothing happens. Or a tent collapses due to weather, but it doesn’t make the news because the venue was already evacuated and no one got hurt. The industry has already thought of this stuff and outlined standards and best practices to prevent injury.”

PLASA, the international association for individuals, companies and other organizations that supply technologies and services to the event, entertainment and installation industries, overseas a Technical Standards Program that is accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The program was launched in 1994 by the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA), which merged with PLASA in 2011.

Among the PLASA standards that apply to live event safety are ANSI E1.2 - 2006, Entertainment Technology - Design, Manufacture and Use of Aluminum Trusses and Towers, and ANSI E1.21 - 2006, Temporary Ground-Supported Overhead Structures Used To Cover Stage Areas and Support Equipment in the Production of Outdoor Entertainment Events. Both standards are undergoing revision, according to Karl Ruling, PLASA Technology Standards Manager. The current versions can be purchased from the ESTA Foundation website. Pros can also find information at the PLASA Technical Standards Program website.

“PLASA’s standards program is a volunteer program of over 100 people who are active in working groups,” Ruling says. “It was started because live event pros needed standards and because life is better, safer or simpler with standards. For example, there were standards for aluminum structures through other industry organizations, but not for portable stages.”

Although current events have turned the focus to PLASA’s stage-related standards, the association also oversees ANSI standards covering everything from the architecture of control networks to measuring the slipperiness of floors in venues.

“A good example of why standards are needed is theatrical fog,” Ruling says. “There are limits to exposure and use so that performers and stage hands aren’t impacted by overuse. It may seem like the use of theatrical fog doesn’t need guidelines or regulation, but it does when the cast and crew are exposed to it for eight shows per week, every week for months.”

However like other ANSI standards, PLASA standards are voluntary. In a statement issued after the August tragedies, PLASA said, “While we don't know how widely ANSI E1.21 is being used inside our industry, it was written specifically to avoid portable stage roof collapses, and probably there would be fewer accidents if more people in our industry knew about the standard and diligently followed it.” The association was quick to point out, however, that in the case of the Indiana State Fair and Pukkelpop stage collapses, it had not yet been determined who or what was to blame for the failures.

Moreover, municipalities often have their own rules and regulations that apply to the permitting and building of live events venues. While PLASA can develop standards, they cannot police their use. The association has voiced concern, in light of last summer’s events, that local governments may be quick to draw up new rules and regulations that could be significantly different from one another. Therefore educating regulators about existing ANSI standards could prove critical to ensuring that live events professionals are able to do their jobs simply and safely through a uniform set of rules.

Education is Key
“The current standards, if they are adhered to, are sufficient to provide safe live events,” says Richard Cadena, Assistant Technical Standards Manager at PLASA. “But it's a moving target. As technology changes, the need to educate the live event production industry increases. It used to be that concerts were produced and run by wits and gut-feel. That's obviously not enough. The industry has matured, the technology has changed and the need for more education is evident. Before personnel participate in the construction of a structure or electrical system, they should, at the very least, be taught the basics of stagecraft, rigging and electricity. We are largely an industry who learned our craft on the job and by word of mouth. These structures are becoming larger and more complicated, which means the industry needs to rise to the challenge of educating our workers.”

CUNY’s Huntington says that New York and Los Angeles, especially, have large, active communities of production professionals. “Local 1 in New York City regularly offers a 10-hour [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] safety course for its members,” he explains. “But in a smaller town, it’s up to each person to find the educational resources for themselves and to read and learn about the standards.”

“There are a number of PLASA ANSI standards related to rigging, trusses, towers, structures and other items, such as speakers that are suspended overhead,” says Cadena. “In the production of a show, when any of these elements are used, they should be supervised by competent, qualified personnel, preferably one or more who are certified in their craft.”

In 2003, ESTA began work on a certification program for entertainment technology technicians. They were joined the following year in their efforts by other related associations, including InfoComm International®, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) International and others. In 2005, the Entertainment Technician Certification Program (ETCP) was established. It is now overseen by PLASA.

Candidates for ETCP certification have to meet certain minimum requirements. There are two rigging tests — one for theatrical applications and one for arena-style venues — plus a test for electricians. All three were designed to identify the skills of riggers and electricians that have considerable work experience.

“It is not a trivial test,” says Cadena. “Roughly half of the candidates who take the exam pass it the first time. In order to help qualified candidates prepare for the exam, there are a handful of ETCP Recognized Trainers who offer classes independently of PLASA.”

Still, it can be hard to convince live events professionals – many of whom are freelancers – that they should adhere to standards and certifications. In 2010, in response to concerns that an ETCP certification may actually expose a technician to more lawsuits, IATSE's Associate General Counsel John Shepherd, wrote a letter to members assuring them, “There is no legal basis for this belief.”

When asked about veteran riggers who’ve never used standards and may not see the need, Ruling says, “When things go wrong, they can no longer say, ‘Who knew?’ It’s a hard position to defend when there are published safety standards in the marketplace…. So far there has been very little resistance to standards adoption by manufacturers or by event personnel.”

No one is saying that the tragedies at the Indiana State Fair and the Pukkelpop music festival occurred because standards weren’t followed or workmanship was poor. Both coincided with sudden, violent weather that appeared capable of destruction regardless of precautions. Investigations into each are ongoing. But PLASA’s ANSI standards will take into account contingency planning in case of weather events. And the more they’re adopted, the more likely the industry can avoid similar disasters.

“Of course, we would like to see more people using these standards, or see municipalities asking to see compliance in addition to the OSHA rules that apply onsite regarding safety, ” says Ruling. “The next storm season will show whether there has been increased adoption of the standards or new laws in response to events. It’s tough to tell right now.”