Health and Safety in the Arts

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Here is another episode from the series of ‘How to in the Arts…’. This post we are looking at the Health and Safety in theatre and the arts. This is obviously one of, if not the, most important part of running theatre as it can be the most costly if things go wrong.

For the purpose of this post theatre is defined as anything where a live performance is created, whether the audience is paying or not, from street theatre right up the stadium and big arena productions.

I have been involved in the Health and Safety for many years for several businesses ranging from completing checklist as a worker to creating the companies Health and Safety strategies. I recently completed an official IOSH Creative Industry Passport course with BECTU and Creative Skillset which refreshed and reestablished what I already knew.

So here are my top 5 bits of advice for theatre or any creative professional on Health and Safety when surviving in the arts industry:

1. Ensure it is written down

So often management try and get rid of staff for breaching Health and Safety as the individual is seen as a liability to the company, but in fact the liability is often on the company simply because they had not got the procedure in writing in the first place. The aim of Health and Safety is remove assumption and grey areas from the line of work, so one of the best way to do this is to simply write it down and make sure staff, crew and freelance are all aware of it and know where to find information if they are not sure. Even better get them to sign to say they have read and understood.

2. Training is never too expensive

While most theatres and industry personnel may feel confident to train their own staff in house, never be afraid to invest in some professional training by sending individuals on external courses. This does two things, firstly it will raise the morale of the individual as they feel appreciated because you value them enough to invest in their learning. Secondly the training will pay for itself as it will mean less accidents, less injuries, less time off as things are being done not just efficiently but safely too. There are far more courses and expertise available external to your business then what you can offer. To help decide what people need to be trained on look at their job role, CV and your business risk assessments. A great example of some training the arts fail to complete although it is stated in almost all risk assessments is that of Manual Handling. Something that most industry professional look for when taking on freelance and contractors and even staff is the IOSH Creative Industry Passport training provided by BECTU.

3. Don’t be afraid to say NO

This is really important, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure everyone who works for them, including contractors and freelances are safe in doing their required job. So if you see something that you feel is not safe then say. If you are required to go up a bit scaffold and you don’t think it looks safe then you have a right to ask to inspect risk assessments and other appropriate paperwork that declares the structures safety. Also be clear beforehand what exactly it is that you are required to do, this relates to the first point, don’t assume. The last thing you want to do is turn up to a theatre assuming that the rig is on electric motors only to find you have to climb up and lower bars by hand or worse still they don’t move at all and you have to hand ball lights up and down ladders. Ask for risk assessments and any other relevant paperwork before you sign the contract.

4. Be Prepared

The Scout motto is Be Prepared. This leads on from point 3 as a freelance ask the right questions before you take on a job, you are entitled to see paperwork relating to Health and Safety. Find out exactly what you are being required to do, the more information you get before the day the better prepared you will be, theatre is by far the most dangerous place of work. Most of the crew are freelance or work with touring companies that go from one venue to the next, safety should never be compromised and anything can happen so you need to know what is what, who you are working with. Better still write your own risk assessments for your line of work, then you can align them with those of the company and venue’s assessments as part of the negotiations.

5. Take Ownership

Whether you are management, staff, volunteer, contractor or freelance, make every task you do your own, take the responsibility to make the area safe. Communicate your thoughts and ideas about safety in the area you are working, because safety is everyone’s job regardless of grade or role. If something goes wrong or looks like it may go wrong tell someone, don’t just assume someone else has said something. When I was overseeing the health and safety strategy for a business I always said that I would rather be told about the same problem by every person on site, and that may well be 50 or more times, but that is better than nobody say anything and an accident happens. Things can only be sorted and changed if people speak up. The human condition means we are always looking to put blame on someone else, but sometime a fault in the first instance may not be anyone’s fault, it only becomes someone’s fault when they do notice and fail to report it. We often fail to see our own mistakes which could simply be not saying anything when something looks wrong.

So there you have it, Health and Safety in a nutshell. Remember if things do go wrong and you end up in court on the grounds of neglect of Health and Safety in the workplace, whether a company or an individual you are guilty until proven innocent, the reverse of criminal law. Judges will often use the view of an everyday passer-by to determine fault, then set the penalty and sentence on what could have been the worst possible outcome, and that is not going to be pretty if it could have been fatality.

Health and Safety is everyone’s responsibility and only a team can produce a production worth paying to see.

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