Safety and Health in the Theater: Keeping Tragedy out of the Comedies…and Musicals…and DramasPosted on by
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:
- electrical hazards
- falls from heights
- exposure to solvents, paints, and resins
- repetitive strain injuries, etc.
- power tools and equipment
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