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Safe and sound? The latest UK initiatives addressing safety issues in the live events industry

Several recent fatalities during the setting-up of live music events have prompted fresh scrutiny of production safety. PSNEurope's David Davies hears about the latest initiatives in the UK from the Production Services Association and the Health and Safety Executive to address some of these issues

Andy Lenthall

Huge arena and outdoor shows are invariably complex affairs with a long list of technological, practical and logistical challenges to be addressed. Safety of crew and performers during set-up and the event itself should invariably be the top priority, but several major incidents have conspired to push the issue of event safety into the spotlight once again.

The incident that occurred before Radiohead’s concert at Toronto’s Downview Park in 2012 was undoubtedly one of the most serious in recent memory. Not only was drum technician Scott Johnson killed when the roof of the temporary stage collapsed, but three other members of the band’s road crew were also injured.

After a court case against promoter Live Nation Canada and two other organisations and an engineer was dropped because too much time had elapsed, the focus shifted to an inquest that finally concluded in March 2019. Returning a verdict of accidental death for Johnson, the inquest heard that the roof grid was not strong enough to bear the load of lights, screens and speakers. Looking to the future, the five-person jury made 28 non-binding recommendations intended to improve event safety, including the creation of a group to develop and maintain standards and procedures for the live performance industry.

Asked if there are lessons here for the UK production industry, Production Services Association (PSA) general manager Andy Lenthall confirms that “there are already structures in place that reflect those recommendations. There is a legal obligation on people to ensure that workplaces and structures are safe. Therefore, for example, there is specific documentation on the use of temporary structures.”

As a trade association for companies and individuals involved in the live event production industry, the PSA has long been at the forefront of encouraging adoption of safety-enhancing initiatives. These include Safety Passports, which provide a nationally recognised standard of health and safety training assessment, and have been developed to test knowledge and cater to specific industry sectors.

In recent times, the PSA has teamed up with the Safety Pass Alliance to develop a one-day course for the technical event production sector.

“The course is designed to give a feeling for the principals behind safe working as well as an awareness of common hazards, with plenty of sector-specific information included,” says Lenthall.

The organisation also continues to highlight emerging risks, including a recent report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which has shown that exposure to mild steel welding fume can cause lung cancer and possibly kidney cancer. And, in parallel with its rising profile in society at large, there is an increasing awareness of mental health issues in the live production industry. In particular, the impact of very long hours and touring schedules on physical and mental wellbeing has been the subject of extensive research in recent years.

Findings have included the fact that “we [the technical entertainment industry] are several times more dangerous than the construction industry in terms of lost-time accidents. […] Fatigue and time pressures are underrated risks in our sector,” asserts Lenthall.

A regulatory eye

Mental health is also increasingly on the radar of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is the UK government agency for the encouragement, regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare. “It’s been a key topic at recent meetings of JACE, which is the HSE-chaired Joint Advisory Committee for Entertainment that meets formally twice per year, and I expect this to be the case for the foreseeable future,” comments the HSE’s Gavin Bull.

Other recent developments include a comprehensive updating of the HSE’s good practice guidance for the construction and deconstruction of temporary demountable structures (TSD). Formally published in 2015, the new guide was the result of research instigated because of the “unprecedented demand” for TDS that preceded the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games.

As an organisation whose primary responsibility is to take “an overarching regulatory eye”, the HSE provides extensive guidance to local authorities – via whom many outdoor live events are licensed. Hence the ongoing popularity of documents like the so-called Purple Guide, which was prepared by the Events Industry Forum in consultation with the HSE and was developed to help event organisers who are duty-holders to manage health and safety at large events.

“In essence, if you follow that guide then you should be on the correct side of the law. It identifies which of the regulations apply [in any given scenario] and then outlines the details of compliance and what that should look like,” says Bull.

With the number of live events remaining high, and the intensity of touring schedules continuing to grow, the issue of production safety is likely to remain prominent in the public consciousness. Fortunately, the impression is that due to extensive research and documentation, as well as effective collaboration between various industry stakeholders, the UK is already in a very strong position in this department.