Advocating Health

Article by Rebecca Denny Burton

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

The last straw came when I found Emily in the paint closet.

Emily, a costume intern three-quarters finished with a questionably useful BFA in scenery and costume design, was kind of entitled, and kind of bratty, and I really didn't like the way she phoned in her paint practicum projects.  But when I found her in the tiny paint closet spaced halfway to Mars on the vapors from the spray paint she'd been using (for quite some time, if the pile of empty cans behind her was any indication), to stencil pseudo-Egyptian faux-embroidery on about thirty ensemble acting apprentice robes, I thought for a minute I would black out with rage.  Although she knew it probably wasn’t a great idea to spray paint in a closet for hours on end, she was afraid of angering the designer who had given her the task, and was worried that if he thought her difficult, he would not recommend her for future work.  Here was a twenty year-old person, a relatively-inexperienced hopeful just starting out in the world of theatre, dutifully destroying her lungs, her potential systemic integrity, and an untold number of brain cells in the name of a reference.  And her boss had told her to do it.

The situation I just described was one incident that happened on one day during one show’s build at one rotating repertory summer stock company.  But it is illustrative of a larger concern embedded in the culture of live performing arts in the United States today, which plays out in countless incidents at countless companies around the country.  Too many theatre artists, both as individuals and as organizational decision-makers, have an unfortunate tendency to set the value of the art they and their colleagues create at a higher level than that of the health and wellbeing of themselves, their colleagues, and, most troubling, the rising generation of artists.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2015 shows more than 4000 OSHA recordable injuries and illnesses for performing arts companies, and 49 fatalities—and these are just the ones that were eligible to be reported.  It does not include those involving students, volunteers, independent contractors, unpaid interns, and other non-employee workers.  Although data on a comprehensive number of theatre-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to procure, it can be assumed that it would be quite a bit higher.

This is a problem, and it is not okay.  It is not okay not because, as I have sometimes heard from disgruntled safety inspectors, because “it’s not brain surgery; this is not a matter of life and death!” although that is true.  It is a problem because theatre specifically, and performing arts generally, are part of the world of human artistic expression which, at its best, illuminates our inner lives, enriches our emotional world, and sheds light on the conditions of our existence.  Art may not be directly saving lives, allocating distribution of resources to humanity, or advancing trade or technology, but it shows us why those things and others matter to us as members of the human race.  Anyone who doubts the importance of art to the progression of humanity should run a search engine search for "arts suppression political censorship", and read through just the first page of hits while considering why dictators throughout history have spent so many resources on trying to control artistic expression. This is a high calling, and it is vital that theatre artists value themselves and each other enough to ensure their continued ability to contribute their considerable skills, talents, and dedication to this calling.  We must hold the artist as valuable as the art.

This is not to imply that advancing health and safety in the arts will or can be easy.  Theatre, on both the performing and technical ends, can be a challenging, bizarre, and constantly changing realm.  Hazards of these workplaces run the gamut from ergonomics to unguarded machinery, from chemical exposure to noise, from electrics to explosives to working eighteen hours a day for eight weeks without a day off.  A weird amalgam of construction, manufacturing, and performance, theatre’s scope of workplace hazards, and the rate at which those hazards can change, is unusual, if not unique, among industries. The opportunities for injury and illness through the demands of the work are impressive in both number and variety.

And yet the majority of theater companies fly beneath the radar of any sort of health and safety regulation or enforcement.  Most have never had an OSHA inspection since their founding, let alone an actively internally-enforced workplace health and safety plan.  Far too many illegally and incorrectly hire staff as “independent contractors,” and outside the protection of worker’s compensation and the employer/employee legal relationship.  And this can be dangerous, even deadly--because in such an environment, those who dedicate their lives to worker protection and could put a stop to the most egregious violations don't find out about the workplace in question until someone has been killed.

These are harsh words, and it is a harsh reality they are intended to illuminate.  Sporadically throughout history, and somewhat more consistently since the Industrial Revolution, various people and organizations have made protection of the lives and health of workers in their work environments a priority, and great strides have made in some industries.  But the many-headed beast that is live entertainment seems often to just fall through the cracks, mainly, I believe, because no one knows what the heck is going on here.

I should know--I am one of the few people who has worked extensively in both professional theatre and professional occupational health and safety, although as yet I have rarely had the opportunity to put the two together.  Most health and safety professionals have a hard science background, and their training is almost entirely limited to large-scale manufacturing.  They have no earthly idea what kind of hazards the typical scenic artist, costume craftsperson, assistant stage manager, etc. is exposed to.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and its state-based affiliates like MSHA (Minnesota Safety and Health Administration), are woefully understaffed and underfunded, and cannot possibly inspect all of the businesses that fall within their jurisdiction.  Large corporations, liable for lots of money if their employees can prove an unsafe environment, typically hire their own environmental, health, and safety (EHS) specialists as inoculation against the day the agency inspectors show up.  But by and large, for the world of theatre, safety is a thing that gets foisted off on technical directors, production managers, and stage managers, lumped in with their myriad other responsibilities.  Unions provide some protection to those lucky enough to be members.  But for the most part, health and safety specialists don’t know what theatre artists do, and theatre artists don’t have the specialized health and safety training or the resources to adequately manage their hazards, and this is a dichotomy that needs to change.

The good news is that this change has already begun, and is slowly being set in motion at various levels of the field. Specialists like Monona Rossol and Randy Davidson have worked through consulting and writing to spread the specialized health and safety knowledge that is needed.  Academic institutions like the Yale School of Drama, and performance companies like the Santa Fe Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival have actively appointed paid employees with theater safety as their main job priority.  In addition, many academic theatre programs are putting a much stronger emphasis on health and safety in their training programs, particularly for technical directors.  Momentum is building.  Good work is being done.

But there is still more to do.  The examples being set at larger institutions need to be followed at smaller ones.  The knowledge of these few specialists needs to be disseminated more widely, and expanded upon.  Tools must be developed that enable companies to do right by their workers even with limited resources.  Perhaps most importantly, the new generations of artists in training need to be taught from the very beginning that their lives and health are important enough to protect, that their work is important enough to protect its creators.  We need to put an end to the mindset that we are exempt from the restrictions of more mundane industries, or that we don’t deserve protections that workers in other fields take for granted, or that all health and safety is embodied in OSHA, and OSHA wants to shut us down (this is a real thing that a real theatre technician said to me, and it is absolutely untrue).  The importance of our work should make us more, not less, determined to be able to go on doing that work indefinitely.  Ours is an industry where one can be asked and expected to create almost any reality.  We must rise to the challenge of creating those realities without destroying our own.  Creativity, adaptability, innovation:  these are the currency the world of theatre has thrived on for centuries.  Let us take those qualities and apply them towards the goal of doing the work we need to do without harming our workforce.  We shouldn’t be worse at this than other industries, we should be better.

At the end of the day, people deserve work that does not harm them because they are human beings, and should not have to pay for honest employment with their lives or health.  But if this is too radical an idea to swallow yet (and the state of worker protection in the world suggests that it may be), consider the level of importance that the arts play in the shaping of humanity's course.  We owe it to ourselves, to each other, to the work, and to the world, to take ourselves seriously enough to do it right.