Occupational safety and health in the theatre and opera comprises diverse aspects, including all the problems of industry in general plus specific artistic and cultural aspects. More than 125 different professions are involved in the process of making theatre or opera performances; these performances can take place in classrooms and small theatres, as well as large opera houses or convention halls. Very often theatre and opera companies tour around the country and abroad, performing in diverse buildings.
There are the artistic professions—artists, actors, singers (soloists and choirs), musicians, dancers, coaches, choreographers, conductors and directors; the technical and production professions—technical directors and managers, lighting manager, chief electrician, sound engineer, chief machinist, armourer, wigmaster, dyeing and wardrobe director, property maker, costume maker and others; and the administrative professions—chief accountant, personnel managers, house managers, catering managers, contracts managers, marketing personnel, box office personnel, advertising managers and so on.
The theatre and opera involve general industrial safety hazards such as lifting of heavy objects and accident risks as a result of irregular working hours, combined with factors specific to the theatre, such as the layout of the premises, complex technical arrangements, bad lighting, extreme temperatures and the need to work to tight schedules and meet deadlines. These risks are the same for artists and technical personnel.
A serious attitude towards occupational safety and health demands taking care of the hand of a violinist or the wrist of a ballet dancer, as well as a broader view of the situation of theatre employees as a whole, including both physical and psychological risks. Theatre buildings are also open to the public, and this aspect of safety and health must be taken care of.
There are many types of potential fire hazards in theatres and opera houses. These include: general hazards such as blocked or locked exits, inadequate number and size of exits, lack of training in procedures in the event of fire; backstage hazards such as improper storage of paints and solvents, unsafe storage of scenery and other combustibles, welding in close proximity to combustible materials and lack of proper exits for dressing rooms; on-stage hazards such as pyrotechnics and open flames, lack of fireproofing of drapes, decorations, props and scenery, and lack of stage exits and sprinkler systems; and audience hazards such as permitting smoking, blocked aisles and exceeding the legal number of occupants. In case of a fire in the theatre building all aisles, passages and staircases must be kept entirely free from chairs or any other obstructions, to help evacuation. Fire escapes and emergency exits must be marked. The alarm bells, fire alarms, fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems, heat and smoke detectors and emergency lights must function. The fire curtain must be lowered and raised in the presence of each audience, unless a deluge sprinkler system is installed. When the audience must leave, whether in an emergency or at the end of a performance, all exit doors must be open.
Fire safety procedures must be established and fire drills held. One or more trained fire guards must be present at all performances unless the fire department assigns firefighters. All scenery, props, drapes and other combustible materials present on the stage must be fireproofed. If pyrotechnics or open flames are present, fire permits must be obtained when required and safe procedures established for their use. Stage and backstage lighting equipment and electrical systems must meet standards and be properly maintained. Combustible materials and other fire hazards should be removed. Smoking should not be allowed in any theatre except in properly designated areas.
Grids and Rigging
Theatre and opera stages have overhead grids from which lights are hung, and rigging systems to fly (raise and lower) scenery and sometimes performers. There are ladders and overhead catwalks for lighting technicians and others to work overhead. On the stage, discipline is required from both the artists and the technical staff because of all the hanging equipment above. Theatre scenery can be moved vertically and horizontally. Horizontal movement of scenery at the side of the stage can be done manually or mechanically through the ropes from the grids in the rope house. Safety routines are very important in rope and counterweight flying. There are different kinds of rigging systems, using hydraulic and electric power. Rigging should be done by trained and qualified personnel. Safety procedures for rigging include: inspection of all rigging equipment before use and after alterations; ensuring load capacities are not exceeded; following safe procedures when loading, unloading or operating rigging systems; maintaining visual contact with a moving piece at all times; warning everyone before moving any rigged object; and ensuring no one is underneath when moving scenery. The lighting crew must take appropriate safety measures while mounting, connecting and directing spotlights (figure 1). Lights should be fastened to the grid with safety chains. Safety shoes and helmets should be worn by personnel working on stage when any work is proceeding overhead.
Figure 1. Arranging lights in a lowered lighting grid.
Costumes and Makeup
Costumes can be made in the theatres’ own ateliers by the wardrobe attendants. It is a heavy job, especially the handling and transportation of old classical costumes. Body aches, headaches, musculoskeletal strains and sprains and other injuries can result from operating sewing machines, dryers, irons, ironing boards and electrical equipment; dust from textiles is a health hazard. Cleaning and dying of costumes, wigs and shoes can use a variety of hazardous liquid solvents and aerosol sprays.
Wearing heavy costumes can be hot under stage lights. Frequent costume changes between scenes can be a source of stress. If flames are present, fireproofing of costumes is essential.
Precautions for wardrobe attendants include proper electrical safety; adequate lighting and ventilation for solvents and spraying; adequate adjustable chairs, work tables and ironing boards; and knowledge of textiles health hazards.
Performers usually have to wear heavy layers of makeup for several hours for every performance. Application of makeup and hair styling is usually done by makeup and hair artists in commercial theatre and opera. Often the makeup artist has to work on several performers in a short period of time. Makeup can contain a wide variety of solvents, dyes and pigments, oils, waxes and other ingredients, many of which can cause skin or eye irritation or allergies. Special effects makeup can involve the use of hazardous adhesives and solvents. Eye injuries can result from abrasions during application of eye makeup. Shared makeup is a concern for transmission of bacterial contamination (but not hepatitis or HIV). The use of aerosol hair sprays in enclosed dressing rooms is an inhalation hazard. For makeup removal, large quantities of cold creams are used; solvents are also used for removing special effects makeup.
Precautions include washing off the makeup with soap after every performance, cleaning of brushes and sponges or using disposable ones, using individual applicators for makeup and keeping all makeup cold. The makeup room must have mirrors, flexible lighting and adequate chairs.
Setting Up and Striking Sets
Scenery at a theatre may require one standing set, which can be constructed of heavy materials; more frequently there can be several changes of scenery during a performance, requiring movability. Similarly, for a repertory theatre, changeable scenery can be constructed which is easily transportable. Scenery can be built on wheels, for mobility.
Stage crews risk injury when building, disassembling and moving scenery, and when moving counterbalances. Hazards include back, leg and arm injuries. Accidents often occur when breaking down (striking) the set when a show’s run is over, due to fatigue. Precautions include wearing hard hats and safety shoes, safe lifting procedures and equipment, banning of unnecessary personnel and not working when fatigued.
For scene decorators or painters painting, nailing and laying out backdrops, paint and other chemicals are also health hazards. For carpenters, unsafe worksites, noise and vibration as well as air contamination are all problems. Wig and mask makers generally have problems with working postures as well as health risks associated with the use of resins—for example, when working on bald heads and false noses. Health risks include toxic chemicals and possible allergies, skin irritation and asthmatic complaints.
There are often national laws, for example, building codes, and local regulations for fire safety. For grids and rigging, directives from the European Economic Commission—for instance, on machinery (89/392 EEC) and on lifting appliances for persons—may influence national legislation. Other countries also have safety and health legislation that can affect theatres and opera houses.