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Health and Safety Guide for Film TV and Theater

Health and Safety Under the Bright Lights

The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater by Monona Rossol
Hot lights and scaffolds and hazardous fumes, oh my. What about fog and pyrotechnics and toxic dyes too? We all wonder about Peter Pan’s safety as he glides across the stage. How secure is his rigging? Do we also wonder about the safety of the set crew installing the rigging?

We love the makeup and wigs worn by performers, but what’s the cost of applying (and removing) these night after night? When we watched snow fall on the “White Christmas” set, how we loved the effect. Yet… in 1998 “a union camera worker was heavily and repeatedly overexposed to fuller’s earth over a couple of days on a movie location. The fuller’s earth was thrown into a large fan to cloud the scene. The worker developed a lung condition (interstitial fibrosis) and filed for workers’ compensation."

If you ever participated in community theater, or high school/college theater, you probably assisted with striking the set—during and/or following the cast party. After long nights of rehearsals, dress rehearsals, and the longer show nights, combined with not eating correctly, being tired, and possibly partying and drinking in excess, it’s a wonder that any performers survived the strike. This book is designed to serve as a guideline for professional theater, film, and television as well as volunteer-run theaters. It warns us of the many risks as well as provides us with options.

The health and safety risks associated with theater will surprise even veterans unless their training is current and ongoing. That is the purpose of this book by Monona Rossol, to raise the level of awareness. The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater is a handbook that exposes risks and hazards but also recommends hundreds of practical alternatives.

The Content

This tightly packed book (233 pages) has 23 chapters, a must-read introduction, resources, annotated bibliography, and index. Topics include The Way It Is, Safety: It’s the Law, Our Materials: How They Affect Us, Reproductive Hazards, Labels, Material Safety Data Sheets, Plans-Programs-Personal Protection (PPE), The Air We Breathe, Respirators, Ventilation, Solvents, Plastics and Adhesives, Molds and Other Biohazards, Carpentry, Welding, Asbestos, Fog-Pyro-Other Effects, Theatrical Makeup, and Teaching Theater.

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Within each chapter expect to find charts, tables, lists of options, and OSHA recommendations. She highlights some relevant high profile cases associated with the risk. For example, in Asbestos, we learn about Steve McQueen’s illness, mesothelioma (cancer caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers) and how he developed the illness. Many performers (and crew) have been exposed when scenic artists threw used asbestos fiber to simulate falling snow performance after performance (and rehearsal after rehearsal). We’d like to believe that these practices no longer occur, however, many clays in use contain asbestos. Fuller’s earth clays contain a mineral called fibrous attapulgite, which has the same hazards as asbestos. Is asbestos still found in theaters today? The answer is yes, and she provides a list of possible locations that may surprise you.

Reproductive Hazards 

This is an area where health experts learn more every day. She identifies what we do know. For example there are over 2000 dyes and about 300 pigments commercially available. Over 45 different metals are found in pigments, bronzing powders, welding, brazing, and soldering alloys and similar craft materials. Hundreds of chemical solvents can be used to thin hundreds of different natural and synthetic resins, oils, and waxes in various paints, inks, varnishes, glues, adhesives, and fixatives. If we count the chemical additives in use to modify paints, plastic resin products, and these other products, then the numbers of chemicals scenic artists use number tens of thousands. Only a small amount of these have been studied for their effects on reproduction.

For several years I was involved in a Halloween community “theater” that required many volunteer performers. These performers were young men and women, in the prime reproductive years. Often one of the young women would announce her pregnancy. Both the men and women would paint their bodies with metal-based paints, they would consistently work in poorly ventilated areas spraying very odd combinations of paints and glues to create eerie effects. None of them had any knowledge about the effect of the individual materials, let alone the combined or cumulative effects. In addition to the set construction hazards that I always worried about, I often wondered what the sprays and paints and latex did to their health.

In Labels she stated that a first step in creating a safer environment is to identify the hazardous materials in storage, on shelves, and actively in use. This knowledge helps establish a first line of defense. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act) requires specific information on the product labels: The identification of any hazardous ingredients, appropriate hazard warnings, the name and address of the chemical manufacturer, importer, or other responsible party. This should make it easy, yet, people often place the materials in non-labeled containers. There are laws that protect against this and these are designed to protect employees and the workplace. Also included in this section is a description about the types of labels, terminology, and directions most commonly provided on products.

All locations can contain hazards, especially in a theater or working on sets in old buildings. She invites the readers to reflect upon the possibilities. In the Location Hazards section she identifies common hazards: structural hazards, fire safety, emergency exits, electrical hazards, garbage and toxic chemicals, bathroom facilities, drinking water, eating and drinking facilities, lead paint, asbestos, pest control, stress from heat or cold, carbon monoxide exposure, treated wood, enclosed or confined spaces, and environmental hazards. In the same theater production I mentioned, a very common chant was “don’t plug or unplug it—no matter what!” Every night the crew and volunteers were reminded to not touch and if problems occurred they were to call the person assigned to electrical issues. Every year someone would forget and try to fix it, often followed by a trip to the hospital. It’s not that the person who forgot was completely at fault, the electrical wiring should not have been jury-rigged. These non-code activities are common in small, low-budget productions, yet, electrical accidents also happen on larger, professional sets.

If you are teaching theater, you have an obligation to help aspiring actors and set designers understand not only the inherent risks, but also the safety rules and regulations. In Chapter 23, Teaching Theater, a brief discussion on safety laws and liabilities is followed by a list of training laws and a list teacher responsibilities/duties. The author provides a sample outline of a theater hazcom training agenda.

Who Should Read This Book

The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater, in my opinion, is a must-read handbook for anyone in the entertainment industry or anyone hoping to work in entertainment. I consider this required reading for all community and church theater groups as they have fewer legal or union protections. All directors and set designers should read this and possibly create their own safety plans. Additionally, I highly recommend this to any theater instructor (high school or college). The information provided in this review reflects less than 1% of the content. Monona Rossol offers more than what not to do, she offers practical, cost-effective options to create a safer, healthier theater environment for behind the scenes and for the performance. She provides valuable resources on where to get more information. If you are involved in theater I can guarantee that while you read this the phrases, “I didn’t know that, I really didn’t know this,” will occur multiple times.

This was published in 2000, and while it is still one of the best resources for health and safety in entertainment, a next edition needs to include updates on some laws and resources. This doesn't qualify as a reason to give it anything less than 5 stars.

For more information about health and safety in film, TV & theater, visit Monona Rossol’s Website

See also my review of Monona Rossol's book, The Artists Complete Health and Safety Guide

Originally published on Epinions at © pestyside, 2014