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

Health and Safety Info for the Monetarily Challenged Artist


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

Theatre can be a messy, dangerous place. In my last article, I talked about the need for greater attention to health and safety in the arts and how we as an industry need to respect ourselves, our skills, and our purpose enough to put a high value on protecting those assets. I'm aware that this can be easier said than done. Many, if not most, small theaters have zero dollars in the budget allocated for any kind of safety program. And if your technical crew is staffed even partially by independent contractors or volunteers, it is arguable whether or not they would technically be covered by such a program.

So the assumption we'll start with for the rest of this article is that the majority of theatre technicians do not have access to an active workplace safety program. This is unfortunate, and in coming articles we'll discuss ways to start changing that, but in the meantime, there are quite a few resources that are available to anyone with an internet connection, for free, to start arming themselves against the hazards of their work environments. I am going to share some of the most helpful ones that I have found.

DISCLAIMER: Some of the resources listed have been developed and are owned by 3M. I currently work for 3M, but I am not receiving any compensation from 3M for listing these products. I am not representing 3M or 3M’s products in these articles. I just know the most about them, and I know some of the incredibly intelligent, passionate, and dedicated people who develop them, so I trust the science behind them. It's possible other safety product companies have similar tools I don't know about. If you find some, send me a link through Tech Tools!

Safety Data Sheets

These are going to be your first line of defense for chemical exposure. Formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets, Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) are legally required by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to be provided by the manufacturer of a product, and are supposed to contain basic information about the ingredients of the material and the health, safety, and environmental hazards associated with them. They are not usually—okay, not ever—perfect, but they do tell you some things. Since the 2012 revision to the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom), they tell you a lot more than they used to. (Sort of. Sometimes.) And often you can get information from what they are not telling you as well.

While these are required for selling a chemical product, they can be much more difficult to procure from an intermediate vendor if you are not buying directly from the manufacturer. (For kicks, go to the paint counter at a big box store and ask them for an SDS for one of their faux finishing products.) In this case, your best bet is to use the internet. Most manufacturers now post these on their websites. If you can't get one from your vendor or the internet, call them up and ask them for it. HazCom also requires manufacturers to list a phone number for more information about the product. Make the people who staff those lines earn their paychecks. Next month in the second part of this article, we'll take a step-by-step look at how to read and interpret a safety data sheet for practical use in theatre.

GESTIS Substance Database

There's nothing little about this nifty little database—it contains exhaustive pertinent environmental, health, and safety data for hundreds and hundreds of chemicals. You can search by name or CAS number (which should be listed on the SDS) and it will tell you physical and chemical properties, personal protective equipment (PPE) recommendations, and everything in between. It's basically an SDS database on steroids. Being European, it contains much more information than an average U.S. SDS, since Europe has much tighter regulations for chemical health and safety. It doesn't have every chemical I've tried to look up, but definitely has the majority of them. I especially love it for toxicology study data and glove recommendations.

The downside: It is only for single chemicals, not mixtures, and you can't look up a chemical if they don't tell you what it is on the SDS. We'll talk more about figuring out chemicals next month in the SDS analysis.

National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the arm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that performs and provides health and safety research. It’s different from OSHA because OSHA enforces the law, based (partly) on scientific research; NIOSH does the research and publishes the data. The NIOSH website is an absolute gold mine of information. It would take way more space than I have to fully explain its useful parts, so I'll just highlight a few of my favorites.

I highly recommend just going to the page and searching for topics of concern to you. Most of the information is presented in a highly readable, easy-to-understand fashion, and it's completely free to access. This is important because most of the really well-researched, most unbiased literature about any scientific topic requires a subscription to a relevant trade journal or purchase of specific articles—and those are not free. A one-year subscription to just one respected trade journal can run you anywhere from $200-$1,200 depending on what access you purchase. But NIOSH provides some of the most solid scientific research about health and safety out there and it’s paid for by your tax dollars and available for the asking. You paid for it. Go use it. Get your money’s worth.

  • PowerTools Database: This database has the noise levels of many of the common power tools—down to manufacturer and model. This information can be very useful for scene shops and prop shops in purchasing new tools, or assigning PPE for existing tools.
  • What Does a Hearing Loss Sound Like?: This site has computer-generated samples of what normal sounds hear like with normal hearing and moderate hearing loss, both with and without background noise. It can be a very effective tool in communicating the importance of using available tools for hearing protection effectively and consistently.
  • Health Hazard Evaluations: This program is one in which qualified health and safety scientists performs an evaluation assessing and controlling possible work-related hazards in a workplace, and provides custom guidance for improving health and safety in that workplace. There is a database of hundreds of reports from these evaluations, many of which can have relevance to the work done in theatre. You can even request an assessment of your own workplace.
  • Workplace Safety and Health Topics for Small Business: Guidance specifically aimed at small businesses with limited resources
  • Work Schedules: Shift Work and Long Hours: some pointed guidance regarding work schedules and long work hours may be of special interest to those working “summer stock” schedules.

There is so much more available on this website: Data, fact sheets, papers, videos, etc. It's worth exploring.

3M Center for Respiratory Protection

A really nice step-by-step guide to creating a respirator program from start to finish (or start to maintenance, really). There are instructional videos, fact sheets, even a checklist to help you make sure you have all the required elements of the program. The site contains both general, science-based information on developing a compliant, effective program as well as brand-specific product information and free tools for using those products. We plan to devote an entire article to respiratory protection programs for theatre in the coming months.

U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Speaking of OSHA, this is the website of our national health and safety agency. They are not, as some would have you believe, a group of malicious bureaucrats determined to shut down honest business owners on the basis of tiny, harmless oversights. (At least not collectively. I can’t speak for any individual person’s bad attitude.)

This website is pretty self-explanatory and it has a decent search engine. The part that documents the actual legal standards can get a little dense, but it has lots of extra explanatory information in much more user-friendly language: Fact sheets, training materials, template health and safety programs, data and statistics, videos, etc. Again, this is all paid for by your tax dollars—go get your money’s worth. My favorite bit is the on-site consultation program. It’s free and gets you expert advice on how to get safe. Little-known fact: You can request a consultation of just one particular health/safety element, or a comprehensive assessment of the entire workplace.

Since most of our readers are in Minnesota, here’s the Minnesota-specific version of the program: Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health. OSHA gives states the option of either using the federal safety and health standards, or else creating equal or more stringent state standards to use in place of the federal program. Minnesota is one of the states that has a state-specific program. There’s a lot of good information on it but it can be tricky to find.

Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety

And lastly (but certainly not least), Monona Rossol has spent nearly her entire career fighting for health and safety for employees in the visual and performing arts. Her not-for-profit company, Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety (A.C.T.S.), provides health and safety expertise in a variety of formats. In addition to formal consulting (not free), she provides low-cost and free advice for artists looking for information and assistance with workplace safety concerns. She is also the health and safety director for Local 829 of United Scenic Artists / International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).
That does it for this month’s installment of “Health and Safety Info for the Monetarily Challenged Artist.” Tune in next month for “Deciphering Safety Data Sheets for Arts & Entertainment Professionals.” I hope you find this information helpful; if you have additional resources you’d like us to showcase, send them along to Tech Tools.