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Certifying The Stage

The Live Entertainment Industry Takes On Safety To Find A Standard For Rigging, Electric Systems and More

When setting up the staging and sound systems for multi-day events, crews must keep safety as one of their biggest priorities. Organizations like the Event Safety Alliance, Take 1 Insurance and PLASA, are working to encourage staging companies to follow specific practices when setting up for live events. Photo Courtesy of 3G Productions

Whether they are taking in a series of world-class concertos, raucous rap, metal performances or a three-day-long hip-hop dance party, people go to outdoor music festivals to kick back, relax and enjoy the party. Rarely do they expect tragedy as part of the set list. Sadly, however, this has been the case numerous times in recent years, with several people losing their lives—primarily due to faulty stage rigging procedures and materials—at outdoor music events in both North America and Europe.

In 2009, a strong windstorm caused the main stage at the Big Valley Jamboree country music festival near Camrose, Alberta, Canada, to collapse, killing one person and injuring dozens of others. In 2011, violent winds caused a similar calamity at the Bluesfest in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. While there were no fatalities at that event, a few weeks later, at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis, Indiana, the roof over the grandstand stage fell on the crowd waiting for a Sugarland performance, crushing seven people to death and injuring 58 others. Less than a week later, a fast-moving storm toppled a stage and damaged several others at the 2011 Pukkelpop Music Festival in Hasselt, Belgium, killing three people and injuring 71 more. In 2012, the stage for a Radiohead concert in Toronto crashed down before the show, killing the band’s drum technician and injuring three crew members.

The cluster of deaths in the space of just four years pushed the issue of event safety to the forefront for the industry and its professionals. They knew that planning, calibrating and building support systems for stages at large outdoor music events must be undertaken with extreme care. While a festival attendee is enjoying the action on stage, his safety depends on complex, behind-the-scenes machinations to ensure the cables, shackles and truss work propping up the stage are capable of supporting equipment many times their own weight.

Helping ensure awareness and understanding of these and other production safety concerns, the Entertainment Technician Certification Program (ETCP) was created by the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA, now part of PLASA) and numerous trade organizations that sit on the ESTA Council. The ETCP Certification Program provides testing to certify professionals in rigging for arenas and rigging for theater, as well as for entertainment electricians. The examinations evaluate and validate the knowledge and skill base of the upper third of riggers and entertainment electricians working in the entertainment industry. As these positions typically involve the health and safety of technicians, performers and audiences, and require compliance with OSHA and other laws, those who earn certification can demonstrate to event providers that they are not only the cream of the crop in their professions, but also follow best-practice safety guidelines. Due to conflict-of-interest issues, the ETCP certification program does not offer training itself, but does recommend good training programs for those interested.

The Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ETSA) provides certificates like this one for riggers and electricians that complete their certification program. Photo Courtesy of the ETSA
Once certified, maintaining certification requires ongoing training. Meredith Moseley-Bennett, ETCP Certification Manager, says the program is gaining wide acceptance in the industry: “Since the development of the program, we’ve seen increased interest in training, as people are starting to recognize that they need certification to remain competitive. We hope it will get to the point that eventually, everything will need the certification to remain competitive. It’s not foolproof, but right now, it’s the best way and employers are starting to ask for it. Some people are seeing insurance cuts because they are hiring ETCP-certified technicians.”

In the aftermath of the concert tragedies, the need for certification and continued training became frighteningly clear to many in the live entertainment industry. Starting with the Tour Link conference in January 2012, a group of professionals hailing from all corners of the industry—among them tour managers, event producers, engineers, riggers, equipment lessors, roadies and safety specialists—began discussing why these disasters happened in the first place, and what could be done to prevent them.

What they found, according to Jim Digby, a 30-plus-year veteran of the live entertainment industry, is that while there are safety standards, best practices and certification programs already in place for many aspects of live entertainment production, there are few motivating factors, be they legal, financial or regulatory, for abiding by proper safety procedures at live events.

“Other than good, common sense, there are few incentives to follow safety best practices and codes, or even to hire certified riggers and electricians at this point,” says Digby. “If you want to go out and produce a show using the lowest bidder, and that vendor doesn’t follow any industry guidelines, that is your prerogative. Also, many event producers do want to do the right thing, but have no reference material to guide them.”

This is what ultimately led Digby to found the Event Safety Alliance (ESA), a non-profit organization that has focused its efforts on creating a one-stop resource for all safety-related practices, standards, regulations and codes in the live entertainment industry, including those set forth by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), International Code Council (ICC), NFPA, OSHA and PLASA’s Technical Standards Program (TSP).

At the core of the ESA’s mission is the Event Safety Guide, which compiles guidelines, standards, codes and best practices for safety that are related to all areas of live entertainment events. Safe installation and management of structures, barriers and electrical installations and lighting are addressed, along with planning and management, including preparation for potentially dangerous weather conditions, venue and site design, fire safety, emergency planning, crowd and transportation management, special effects, fireworks and pyrotechnics, and virtually all other aspects of live entertainment production. A “living document,” the guide is available for free on the ESA website, Still in draft form, it is currently open to review by industry professionals.

“The Event Safety Guide is not confined just to festivals,” notes Digby. “It’s really about providing industry professionals with a central resource for referencing safety guidelines and practices for live entertainment events of all types and sizes, from how a portable toilet should be placed on an event site to weather preparedness and rigging practice.”

Security is a factor festival producers must accommodate when planning a festival—seen here, a security team maintains the boundary between a stage and the audience. Photo Courtesy of the Event Safety Alliance

Nor is the guide meant to be a how-to for setting up safe staging and rigging at live events. It is intended to inform the reader of the right questions to ask and guide them to the correct resources already in existence to ensure the job is done correctly, Digby explained. That information is covered by PLASA, which, according to Lori Rubinstein, executive director of the trade organization’s North American branch, takes a two-pronged approach when it comes to implementing safe practices in the industry: “One, we provide the standards for people to follow, and two, encourage event producers to use qualified people to do the work.”

As for PLASA’s standards, the main ones related to live event safety are known as ANSI E1.2—the current version of which is for 2012, covering aluminum trusses, towers and related components—and ANSI E1.21, which the PLASA Technical Standards Program published in 2006, and is looking to finish a new version soon. It speaks to temporary ground-supported overhead structures used to cover stage areas and support equipment in the production of outdoor entertainment events.

According to Karl Ruling, the technical standards manager for PLASA’s Technical Standards Program, PLASA has been involved in writing standards for 19 years, primarily on an ad-hoc basis.

“There were standards written by other organizations, such as the National Fire Protection Association, but there were gaps, so ESTA, which merged with PLASA in 2011, began work to address them,” says Ruling. “We are trying to write things for which there are no standards, and which affect the business of our members, so that they can be profitable while also following safety procedures.”

As for certification, the PLASA Entertainment Technician Certification Program (ETCP) offers certification for those looking to become certified arena-rigging technicians, theater-rigging technicians and/or entertainment electricians. While there aren’t regulating mandates for industry professionals to be certified, by hiring a certified professional to work an event, event producers can be assured they are working with individuals who have proven knowledge of best practices.

At PLASA, Moseley-Bennett said she is already seeing signs that employers are starting to hire only those with the ETCP-recommended certifications.

“We have definitely seen an increased interest in training from those preparing to take the exam, as it’s starting to catch on that certification makes you more attractive to event providers,” she said. “This increased focus on education and training is good for the industry at all levels.”

In this way, the industry is starting to self-regulate, without the intervention of the government—regulation being seen by many as potentially harmful to the industry’s financial health. Legislative action by state governments, often drafted by people without much knowledge of the live event production process, can make it harder for events to be held.

“It’s evident that the industry was on the precipice of having the government step in on a much larger scale—clearly the right thing to do was to stand up and being policing from within,” Digby continued. “We (the entertainment industry) know better than most how to produce shows and do it safely.”

As it turns out, entertainment insurance underwriters are key to preventing governmental intervention. “From the insurance perspective, we believe that our role and responsibility is to look for those customers who are following safe practice,” says Scott Carroll, executive vice president and program director for Take 1 Insurance, an insurance program underwriter specializing in live events. “We do that by asking the appropriate questions to get at the root of what a particular company does to ensure they are following stated guidelines and safety procedures.”

Take 1, which is closely aligned with the ESA in its efforts, asks insurers to fill out a supplemental application detailing their business operations and background. Among other questions, it asks whether the company is a member of PLASA and other industry certification organizations, whether there are ETCP-certified riggers on staff and if they are familiar with the Event Safety Guide. Once Take1 determines that an organization follows proper safety procedures and practices, can present a better argument to insurance carriers, which may include better terms and conditions that might otherwise be available if those safety practices were not followed.

One of the determining factors Take1 uses to make this recommendation is a company’s familiarity with the Event Safety Guide—a move that is, as Carroll puts it, “…a very specific and targeted strategy.” By working together on safety initiatives, he believes, the insurance industry and the ESA can offer the positive motivation needed to drive the cultural change and awareness in the live entertainment industry that will lead to greater event safety.

Given the cost of producing a live music festival, it may be tempting for an event producer to go with the cheapest insurance. Cut-rate insurers, however, may only offer superficial and limited coverage, without regards to safety. Carroll says the focused underwriting approach will ultimately have the effect of strengthening the overall live event industry by weeding out those who don’t make safety a priority.
“We do not represent the cheapest markets in the industry,” says Carroll. “If needed, we’ll send loss control or risk-management representatives from the carriers to assess what’s going on at the festival, to suggest ways things can be improved from a safety perspective, and there is a cost associated with that that is borne ultimately with the premium.”

“This will come full circle as we put more and more into place,” he says. “The cheap providers that don’t adequately insist that their insured’s follow safety guidelines as deemed the norm in the industry will likely start to see worse underwriting results in the live event space, and ultimately wish to participate less.”

The combined efforts PLASA, Take 1, the ESA and other organizations involved in creating a safer industry are having an impact on the future of the event industry. Digby said close to 3,000 industry professionals have registered with the ESA and the organization is hopeful that the U.S. entertainment production industry will follow in the footsteps of its peers in the U.K., where the introduction of the HSE 195, more commonly known as the “Purple Guide” (published in 1993 and revised in 1999). Digby said this “Purple Guide was a major influence for the ESA to create the U.S. Event Safety Guide.

Once version one of the Event Safety Guide is finalized, insurance carriers will have a better idea of the right kinds of questions to ask of event producers and providers to ensure safe practices are being followed, Digby said.

“With the motivation of the insurance companies wanting to see the job done right and knowing what to look for, the ESA believes that it can affect the kind of cultural change the industry needs to embrace preventing a further tragedy.”

“If we can get to the point where people say, ‘If I’m going to have a live event, I’m going to follow the Event Safety Guide,’ it will make a sea change in the industry. And this is ultimately what it’s about,” Digby said. “This culture of safety has taken over in the U.K., and that’s where we intend to push this mission in the U.S. We hope to unleash an inherent culture of safety.”