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How to avoid hazards on the stage

By Mark Mohler

Churches conduct different types of live performances especially during the holidays – ranging from small plays to elaborate theatrical productions. There are many things to consider, including stage construction, painting of the set and scenery, costume design and rehearsals.
There are also numerous hazards that come along with a theatrical production, including fires, rigging failures and slips and falls. If these hazards are not controlled, they can result in severe property damage and injury or death to staff, volunteers and possibly audience members. The following examples describe some common types of hazards that can be associated with performance activities and how to control them:

Electrical – Additional electrical demands are often required for stage lighting, props and equipment. This can lead to overloading of the current electrical service. If flickering lights, blown fuses or tripped breakers are occurring, this is a good indicator the electrical service is overloaded. The use of extension cords and temporary wiring should be avoided if at all possible. Any necessary electrical work should be completed by a licensed electrical contractor.

Fire hazards
Churches conduct different types of live performances especially during the holidays – ranging from small plays to elaborate theatrical productions. There are many things to consider, including stage construction, painting of the set and scenery, costume design and rehearsals.
There are also numerous hazards that come along with a theatrical production, including fires, rigging failures and slips and falls. If these hazards are not controlled, they can result in severe property damage and injury or death to staff, volunteers and possibly audience members. The following examples describe some common types of hazards that can be associated with performance activities and how to control them:

Flammable liquids and solvents – The use of flammable-based liquids, such as paints, stains, varnishes, adhesives and chemicals used for set decoration are all possible sources of fuel. Proper use, storage and disposal of these liquids are critical to reduce the chances of fire. Solvent-soaked rags can actually catch fire on their own (spontaneous combustion), and these should be kept in metal containers with self-closing lids.

Housekeeping – The backstage areas can be very tight for space. It is critical to maintain a clutter-free backstage and provide a clear space from combustibles and ignition sources, such as lights and electrical equipment. Lighting, with protective guards, may need to be provided to ensure combustible materials cannot come in contact.

Stage curtains and sets – Stage curtains should be certified flame-retardant, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 701. If your stage curtain does not have a certificate stating it meets this standard, one should be requested from the manufacturer. If this cannot be supplied, the curtain should be replaced with a compliant curtain. Remember, flame-retardant treatments do not last forever and the certificate should indicate when retreatment is required. Wood stage decorations, props and scenery should be adequately fire-proofed. There are paints and sprays available to complete this. Another option is to build stage sets using fire retardant pressure treated wood (FRPTW) that does not need any additional fire proofing. Standards for theater scenery, curtains and furnishings are commonly set by law, and churches should check with state and local authorities to be sure of compliance.

Rigging
A rigging system is typically comprised of a series of ropes, pulleys, counterweights and similar devices that allow for raising or lowering of curtains, lights and stage effects during the theatrical production. These systems can suspend hundreds of pounds of equipment, and if a rigging failure would occur, these heavy objects can fall.

Do-it-yourself rigging should be avoided if at all possible. Rigging should be left to the professionals who are properly trained and knowledgeable in the safe operation of the equipment and what to do in an emergency. This also would include regular inspections of the rigging equipment before the production, after any changes are made and at scheduled intervals.

Slips, falls and life safety
There are many slip and fall hazards present during any theatrical production. Life safety concerns also should be considered. For example:

If scaffolding is needed, it should be installed and taken down by trained professionals. Guardrails, mid rails and toe boards should be installed on all open sides and ends of platforms that are 10 feet or more from the floor. The correct type of ladder to safely perform the job should be used. Ladders have ratings associated with them based on weight and use. If the rating label is not found on the ladder, the ladder should be replaced. Ladders should be inspected before each use and any ladders with defects such as broken or missing rungs should not be used. Non-skid feet should be installed and the ladder should be placed on a dry, level, and stable surface. Never use metal ladders around electrical work. Stepladders should be used in the fully opened, locked position and the top step should never be used to stand on.

The number of people who can occupy the building during a performance is called the occupant load. Allowing too many people inside your building could hinder proper evacuation of the building under emergency situations. Contact your local fire marshal to help you determine the occupant load and adhere to this number during performances.

All cords (electrical, sound, etc.) should be taped down to avoid someone tripping over them.

All exits should be marked, unlocked, free of obstructions and illuminated. Any doors or corridors that are not actual exits, which could be confused as exits, should be properly marked indicating they are not exits.

Stairs should be provided with handrails, kept clear of obstructions and lighted.

All walking surfaces should be level and in good condition with no cracks, potholes or depressions.

Under emergency situations where power is lost, it is critical to have emergency lighting units installed that are in proper working order. Under power failure conditions, these lights will automatically come on and light the main area and the exits out of the building, allowing for safe exit from the building.

Planning, practicing and presenting a church performance should be a fun and exciting time for your organization. Help ensure that everyone who is participating is kept safe from harm by following these guidelines.

Mark Mohler is risk manager at GuideOne Insurance, West DeMoines, IA. [www.GuideOne.com]

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