Safety and Health in the Theater: Keeping Tragedy out of the Comedies…and Musicals…and Dramas

Posted on by Gregory A. Burr, CIH and Deborah Hornback, MS

On Sunday, the 2012 Tony Awards celebrated the year’s best offerings from “The Great White Way.”  While the theater provides entertainment, the preparation and production of live performances can also pose hazards to those working in all aspects of the theater –from actors on stage to set designers behind the scenes and musicians in the orchestra pit.  Some of these hazards were well publicized in recent years as multiple actors and stunt doubles were injured during the production of Spiderman, Turn off the Dark.  These injuries included harness failure, injuries sustained during flying sequences and actors struck by equipment[i]. With the complexities of a theatrical production, there are numerous potential hazards.  In fact, one hazard, a falling backdrop, is portrayed in the musical The Phantom of the Opera.  But the Phantom wasn’t to blame when a large backdrop hit Bret Michaels on the head after performing with the cast of Rock of Ages during the 2009 Tony Awards [ii].   Other potential hazards in the theater include rigging and flying hazards, repetitive strain injuries among dancers and carpenters, solvent and chemical exposures, noise-induced hearing loss, electrical hazards, falls from heights, as well as most hazards found on a construction site.

Data from the Bureau of Labor statistics show that injuries involving days away from work among occupations related to the theater increased from a low of 870 in 2006 to a high of 1,570 in 2008.  In 2009, (the most current data available) injuries decreased to 1,190.  Among the injuries incurred from 2003-2009, 50% were strains and sprains; 41% were to the lower extremities; and the median number of days away from work was 39 days– notable as the national average is around 8 days.[iii]

In 1990, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) received a joint request from the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) and the League of American Theatres and Producers, Inc. (LATP) to investigate possible health effects associated with the use of theatrical “smoke” in Broadway productions. NIOSH investigators took air samples and administered a questionnaire to actors at four Broadway productions using theatrical “smoke” (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera, and Grand Hotel) to  determine whether there were measurable respiratory effects among performers.  NIOSH investigators administered the same questionnaire to actors in five Broadway productions in which no theatrical “smoke” was used.

NIOSH found no evidence that theatrical “smoke,” at the levels found in the theaters studied, is a cause of occupational asthma among performers. The NIOSH report noted that some of the constituents of theatrical “smoke,” such as the aerolized glycols and mineral oil, could have irritative or mucous membrane drying properties in some individuals.  Therefore, it is reasonable to minimize exposures by such means as relocating “smoke” machines to avoid exposing actors to the direct, concentrated release of the aerosols, minimizing the amount of “smoke” necessary for the production, and using only fog fluids approved by the manufacturers of the machines. Glycol-based systems should use “food grade” or “high grade” level glycols. They should be designed to heat the fog fluids only to the lowest temperature needed that achieve proper aerolsolization that creates the theatrical “smoke” as this would help to avoid overheating the fluid and minimize the generation of decomposition products.

NIOSH has an ongoing health hazard evaluation on theatrical “smoke” commonly used for firefighter training exercises. Both glycol-based fluids and mineral oil fogging systems are used during these training exercises. This evaluation is expected to be completed by the fall of 2012.

In 1984, NIOSH was asked to evaluate complaints of headaches and nausea among musicians playing during performances for the musical comedy “La Cage aux Folles.” The musicians associated their complaints to a sweet odor.  One possible source of exposure was 1,1,1- trichloroethane (also called methyl chloroform), the major spotting solution used to clean the costumes backstage.  NIOSH investigators found that musicians and other theater employees were unnecessarily exposed to low concentrations of trichloroethane and the following recommendations were provided to reduce further exposure.

  • Discontinue the practice of using circulating fans to “dry” garments after cleaning.
  • Use a less harmful spot-removing compound and equip the spotting table with downdraft exhaust ventilation, or use a locally exhausted drying box.
  • Provide dilution ventilation into the orchestra pit one hour before curtain time.

Note: The recommendation in the 1984 health hazard evaluation report suggesting respirators when using spotting solution is not included here, reflecting current research and practice.

Another hazard for musicians is noise-induced hearing loss.  The NIOSH blog These Go to Eleven highlights musicians’ risk for permanent hearing loss and ringing in the ears (called tinnitus).  The blog also provides prevention strategies including the use of custom- or universal-fit Musicians Earplugs to keep fidelity but decrease intensity.

The idea for this blog on hazards in the theater actually came from a comment on the NIOSH blog post on polyurethane spray foam.  The reader noted that spray foam is used in theatrical scenery and in his case, without proper respiratory protection.  In addition to the potential exposure to fumes from spray foam, set designers face many of the hazards faced in the construction industry including:

Each theatrical hazard mentioned has unique prevention methods.  Use the links to NIOSH material as a starting point.  Additional information can be found by visiting the United Scenic Artists health and safety library.

To quote this year’s hit musical (and winner of best featured actress and actor in a musical) it’s  “Nice work if you can get it.”   Let’s make sure that those working to provide the breathtaking scenery, riveting stunts, energetic dance numbers and moving music that brings enjoyment to so many theater goers are working in a safe environment.

Gregory A. Burr, CIH and  Deborah Hornback, MS

Mr. Burr is an Industrial Hygiene Team Leader in the NIOSH Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Branch in the Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies.

Ms. Hornback is a Communication Specialist in the NIOSH Education and Information Division.



[iii]Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, June 2012. Number of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work1 by selected  worker and case characteristics and occupation, All United States, private industry, 2003-2009

Posted on by Gregory A. Burr, CIH and Deborah Hornback, MS

37 comments on “Safety and Health in the Theater: Keeping Tragedy out of the Comedies…and Musicals…and Dramas”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Wow, great information, I found out after reading this. Apparently lots of things that endanger the health in the entertainment world, which we did not know before. So far, we only knew that a movie or a show runs smoothly and well. But we had no idea all the risks that have been covered by many artists and crew behind the scenes. Hopefully those working in the entertainment field will be more aware of such matters, so that their healthcare is more maintained. Thank you.

    As a Huntsville Al Chiropractor, I have for years volunteered my services to many stage groups like the Broadway national touring companies, and national opera touring companies. It has been my experience with the national companies that most of the true hazards have been thought through and eliminated. On the other hand the number of strain/strains and repetitive use injuries abound. I also feel that many of these injuries are almost inherent in the art form much like minor injuries are expected in football or soccer.

    Wow great information, i didn’t realize, there many risk for worker who work behind the screen of show, i notice only the show, thanks for your information opened my information about activity and risk on the behind the screen show

    Wow! Very cleverly written and eye opening Article! I was not aware of the risks associated with what you mentioned. Thank you!

    Admin@ []

    The theatre is not a place obviously linked with health and safety, but like any other area, very important.

    It makes sense that strains and sprains would be a part of theatre just as they would be an other active job such as a professional hiker or something of that nature. mild injuries are a part of life and what it mostly boils down to is common sense.

    Interesting.. Honestly, I never thought about safety and occupational hazards for theater actors and workers, but I guess that’s the challenge: seeing workplace hazards wherever they exist and coming up with solutions!

    Safety at first. Sometimes it is very hard to find good content on this topic. But your blog is my way to desired information. Thanks for posting something worth reading.

    Working in all employment environments in modern times employment accidents should be a rare occurrence as modern organizations owe a duty to not only comply with the current employment laws but also regularly instigate a stringent Risk Assessment and all potential risks must be identified and resolved.

    I never thought about this as a possible hazard. Thanks for this information. It is good that they are taking a look at this to keep all those people safer in their profession.

    I can speak with some confidence and first hand experience that the rewards of working in summer theatre far outweigh the risks. I agree that people on cast and crew should take every precaution to remain safe – particularly when volunteering for jobs that are high risk and out of your normal area of expertise. On the other hand definitely, definitely do it!

    Show Biz is just like any other business and should be treated like any other business. This risks are numerous and they need to be scoped by those with experience in theater.
    Whether a personal physical risk or a tangible risk all parties should be made aware and contingency plans put in place.
    Each show / project needs to be carefully considered and documented. All concerned parties should be provided with this information.

    The company I work for installs Spray Polyurethane Foam also called SPF. There are a number of people in the industry who do not warn their clients that the fumes expelled during the initial 4-8 seconds are full of toxic chemicals not safe to be around without an approved respirator.

    I think it’s a shame that a person who is in a position of trust i.e. employer, contractor, etc would place people around them in danger of inhaling anything toxic that could affect their health.


    It seems like every day an extra is hurt, or killed on the set of a movie. I am sure on the Broadway circuit the people behind the scenes are equally at risk. We should give props to those that bring us enjoyment. Well done article!!

    Before medical school, I worked for many years as a performer in a number of venues and saw firsthand the risks involved. I think the level of danger continues to rise as sets get more elaborate and mechanized. Spiderman on Broadway had its rehearsal run marred by injuries; Phantom had some issues early on with some of the stunts if people were off their marks. The Met’s new Ring production features a massive “Machine” of a set that, to my knowledge, hasn’t led to any injuries but does foreshadow more complex sets with more moving pieces and more chances for something to go awry. Most big companies I sang for were very diligent about safety as were the unions for performers, stage crew, and orchestra! Even so, every company does have its share of stories from decades past that inspired the precautions we take today.


    Musicians lose their hearing a lot faster than the rest of us. However, if you go to a bunch of concerts like myself, then you definitely have a higher risk of losing hearing than others.

    Very informative article about the theater , nowadays theater is quite different and very much unpredictable. But safety factor is lacking in theater , many uncalled accidents do happen at theater. So there is need to be taken more precaution and health factor should be consider major factor. I really like the article and feel so attached with it.

    health and safety gone mad in my opinion, i mean there are always going to be accidents in everything, there probably in more danger on there way to the theatre, i dont agree that this is a real issue, i mean just look at other proffesions like being in the army or logging, its not possible to keep accidents in any environment at 0

    The health and safety keeps people safe. I agree that it has been taken to far but i also believe its better to be safe than sorry especially in the cleaning industry

    Our health and safety policy helps to ensure all staff are safe.

    Damien Carter

    Safety first and also safety in the theatre but it is not really common to treat this topic understand that it is important and should take all measures to avoid accidents of any kind between the actors.

    The information about theater and comedy is very nice. It seems like every day an extra is hurt, or killed on the set of a movie. I am sure on the Broadway circuit the people behind the scenes are equally at risk.

    what extent does the environment contribute to injuries in theatre over the work done. I am particularly thinking about old theatres: not where the building itself fails, like the Apollo Theatre in London, but, for example where the issues of respiratory problems (not just due to smoke but the general filfth backstage) are more extreme because of ancient or non-existant ventilation systems.

    In conducting health hazard evaluations, NIOSH has found that ventilation is very important in helping maintain good indoor environmental quality. In many older commercial buildings ventilation systems may not provide enough outdoor air, because they were not designed to meet current ventilation guidance and/or they have been poorly maintained. Information and resources can be found on the NIOSH Indoor Environmental Quality topic page

    Wow, great information, I found out after reading this. Theater is quite different nowadays. I never thought about this as a possible hazard. Nice to read.

    I never thought about this as a possible hazard. Thanks for this information. It is good that they are taking a look at this to keep all those people safer in their profession.


    Thanks for sharing those information’s, really it will be helpful to people who are all wants to know more about The Great White Way.

    Yeah Very interesting and worth reading. I never thought about this as a possible problem. Thanks for this information

    I think safety first is a must!! I am curious after reading these though…..we are putting on a middle school production performed on a pseudo stage at our school. Not only do we get a fire inspection but a building inspection held to above and BEYOND state regulations. These are temporary structures and NOT houses we are building. We also have been asked this year to get a building permit. Have you EVER heard of that being required?? We are just volunteers and I wish I knew if this was actually necessary and/or required by law. Would love to hear if anyone can chime in on this!!

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