Putting your hard-earned tax dollars to work: NIOSH health hazard evaluations

I first met Rebecca in 2008. She was the charge painter for an event for which I was the house electrician. When she moved to town a couple of years later, it was a terrific addition to the Twin Cities community. Rebecca is now an Industrial Hygienist for 3M, but she’s remained close to the Performing Arts community, and her powerful and informed interest in safety on the job ought to be an inspiration for us all. A brilliant person with that rare intellect that cuts right to the heart of any matter while still remaining very cognizant of pragmatic concerns, Rebecca is the kind of person we should all have been paying more attention to long ago. —Wu Chen


One summer I got hired to be a props assistant at a small summer stock theater company in Connecticut, my first summer stock gig.  I was still in college, and had just finished my junior year.  When I arrived at the posh boarding school campus that housed the festival, I found that, counter to my expectations, I was, in fact, the entire props department.  As the first of many professional “fake it ‘til you make it” moments in my career, it was a doozy.  

That summer hosted a lot of professional “firsts” for me, some more memorable than others.  But one memory that sticks out very plainly in a blur of colorful images was a moment when I found myself in a small, enclosed office, spraying foam insulation into a plywood frame in the shape of one of those mantelpiece clocks reminiscent of Napoleon’s famous bicorne hat, which was placed on the head of the assistant technical director.  We had had with the brilliant idea of having him wear it during construction as a head-shaped mold for the foam, so that it could be used during the show as a hat, because theater.  I know.  Whatever you’re thinking, I have already thought of.  To this day (fifteen years later) I cringe at the thought of all the things wrong with this operation, from every conceivable angle.  At the time, I just remember thinking, “Our job is weird.”  

Our job is weird.  It is weird, and it is inconsistent, and while you’ll have times when you go for months painting wood to look like wood, or building endless square platforms out of 2x4 and ¾ ply, you can also suddenly find yourself distressing a baby doll to look like a demon zombie child that can be hung around the neck of Richard III (or was it his mother?) to symbolize the emotional distress embodied by his physical deformity.  Because theater.  

Because of this, it can be difficult to figure out how to apply safety and health learnings from other industries to our trade, and, somehow, our trade doesn’t get nearly as much press as a lot of other trades, so it doesn’t get as many tailored learnings to begin with as something like construction or mining.  

This is just one of the challenges inherent in creating a stronger health, safety, and wellness culture within the performing arts.  However, there are places you can turn for assistance.  I’ve mentioned some of them in my previous column, but there’s one I’m going to highlight in particular today, and that is the NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation database.

Just as a reminder, NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and its mission is to promote productive workplaces through safety and health research.  Their website has a ton of useful information, but today’s focus is, as I mentioned, the Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) program.

This program brings safety and health experts from the institute to assess and evaluate hazards at a workplace, at the request of an employee, employer, or union.  The evaluation is performed at no cost to the company evaluated (your tax dollars at work—use them!) and has the advantage of providing EHS specialists who are not only highly skilled and experienced, but also as unbiased as it is possible for such a specialist to be.  An evaluation can be requested for any chemical, physical, biological, or even psychosocial hazard (or combination of hazards) that an employer or employee is concerned about, and as NIOSH is an agency dedicated to research and education, does not issue citations or fines of any kind.  What it will provide is a summary report with the results of the evaluation, recommendations for improvements, and potential resources for employers in implementing those improvements.

The HHE database on NIOSH’s website contains all 3521 reports completed since the program began in 1970.  Most are available for download (free) in PDF format, a few you can request a copy of from NIOSH (also free, they just don’t have them available for download). They are categorized by year, company, health hazard, and industry, and have a fairly robust search feature.  

As I mentioned, any employee, employer, or union representative can request an HHE.  Once they receive a request, someone from the program will contact the requestor, and find out more about the situation, and determine if an onsite evaluation is necessary.  If it’s not, they’ll provide the employer and employees with information about the hazards in question, general recommendations for ways to abate them, and resources on how to implement those recommendations.  This is typically the case for situations involving well known problems, with recognized solutions, and readily available guidance.

If it is determined that an onsite evaluation is needed, NIOSH will make arrangements with the employer to come to the workplace and conduct the assessment there.  This may include confidential employee interviews or surveys, task and environment observation, chemical sampling, noise monitoring, radiation monitoring, medical testing, and more.  It may require multiple days onsite.  And at the end, the company and employees will receive a full report with all the results, recommendations, and resources carefully tailored to their exact company and situation.  After an evaluation, NIOSH holds a follow-up session with the company and employees where they learn whether the recommendations were implemented, the impact of the investigation on the company and employees, and ask for feedback to improve future assessments.

You might think that a theater company has little chance of being selected for something like this.  But remember earlier when I said how it can be difficult to apply general industry learnings to the arts?  A NIOSH employee I spoke to this year said that this is exactly the reason why we have a greater chance of being selected—the more common a hazard situation is, the more likely it’s already been covered in the literature, and possibly by NIOSH themselves.  Onsite evaluations are for problems that are not well-known, don’t have recognized solutions, and lack readily available guidance.  I’d say that pretty much sums up the performing arts field, as far as most of the rest of the world is concerned.  

So far, only two HHEs have been performed within actual theater companies:  one in 1985, at the Palace Theater in New York, to investigate employee exposure to 1,1,1-trichloroethane, which was being used to spot clean costumes during performances, and one in 1994, to investigate employee exposure to theatrical smoke in Broadway performances.  That’s it.  The employee I spoke to, who was giving a presentation on the 1985 assessment, spoke longingly of his group’s eagerness to know more about this industry and its hazards.    If you wish, they will not tell your employer who called them.  There is no minimum number of employees who must be affected.  It’s free to apply, free for any assistance they give, and you have nothing to lose by inviting them to help.  

My summer as a first-time prop master eventually ended, and I knew a lot more about furniture, fake food, and what not to do in any work environment than I had before.  As far as I know, my unfortunate hat mold model is still just fine and still working in theatre, hopefully not breathing any more insulation foam fumes at close range.  Since then, though, I’ve learned a lot more about resources we can use to keep ourselves safe and sane at work, and one of my firmest beliefs is that if you’re going to pay for something, you might as well make the receiver work for it.  You pay taxes.  Get your money’s worth.  Make them earn it.  You deserve it.

The weirdness of theater notwithstanding, here are a selection of HHEs I found besides the two above that I feel have applications to theater.  If you do any digging and find more, please let me know through Tech Tools!

MGM Grand Hotel & Casino – employee exposure to pyrotechnic smoke

Flame retardant exposure

Paint exposure in aircraft finishing

Ventilation in aircraft restoration hangars

Organic vapors in screen printing

Lead and wood dust exposure in floor refinishing

Chemical exposure during spray painting

Chemical exposures, job stress, and other work-related concerns at a forensic crime lab

Exposures at a pottery shop

Lead exposure at a stained-glass studio

Airborne emissions from laser cutting