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

Scaffold Seating and Precarious Pipes: Tech in the Time of the Guthrie 2

This is the second of our articles about the Guthrie 2, the entity that existed on the West Bank from 1976-79 before it evolved into the Southern Theater that we know today.
Jeff Bartlett is a well known regional theater and dance lighting designer and was the founding artistic director of the Southern Theater, serving from 1981-2008.  He is currently the production manager and lighting designer for the Weitz Center for Creativity at Carleton College.
-Mike Wangen

Many in our theater community know the Southern Theater: artists and audience are fond of its unique warmth and ambiance; technicians have great fear and loathing of its pipe grid.  (You think it’s bad now boys n’ girls? You shoulda seen it when there weren’t even planks!)

Many folks know that the Southern opened as a vaudeville house in 1910, and that the building was subject to multiple uses/abuses over the decades: gutted and turned into a garage/warehouse, a restaurant and sundry other identities

Fewer and fewer though, may remember the brief but oh-so-critical juncture in the building’s history when it re-emerged from its derelict state and returned to its role as a performing arts venue, under the visionary if perhaps slightly crazy leadership of Artistic Director Eugene Lion: its 3-year stint as the “Guthrie 2” from 1976-79.

The “G2” was a grand adventure in “experimental theater.”  An artistic adventure, yes, featuring such contemporary scripts as The Future Pit and Krapp’s Last Tape.  But a true physical adventure for the audience as well, with no actual seats; rather a rickety, unsightly and entirely uncomfortable makeshift seating structure fashioned from construction scaffold.  And what an adventure for technicians, doing all their grid work on a series of pipes held up with chains, swaying with our every move!

Background: the story as I heard it (in my early days as in tern at the G2) was that Eugene, who had some sort of working relationship with the Guthrie, had pretty much on his own initiative received funding from a major national foundation to set up an “alternative,” second, performing space for the Guthrie.  Although then-Guthrie Artistic Director Michael Langham apparently wasn’t thrilled with either Eugene or his non-traditional approaches to theater, once the grant was awarded Guthrie management had little choice but to give the project a chance.

So the project had minimal financial support, and only “begrudging” conceptual support, from the Guthrie especially at the very beginning.  And/but/also, the whole endeavor was seen by those of us working on it as a brave and bold venture into uncharted realms of “experimental theater.”  So no one needed to bother themselves with petty bourgeois concerns like audience comfort or technician safety.

And the space needed to be (of course!) flexible!!  (Can’t be “experimental” if it isn’t flexible, right?)

The formula thus became: lack of money + desire for flexible seating + this is a brave and bold experiment = let’s put the audience on scaffolds that can be rolled around the room into any configuration we want!  

What are they going to sit on?  Why, we’ll build a bunch of box-like structures that can sit on the scaffolds and serve as both benches and steps.  (Come to think of it, this very design idea is echoed in the concrete stairs on the north side of the new Guthrie… hmmm…)

Flexible, they were.  Comfortable, not.  Plywood over a 1-by frame, with the cheapest imaginable carpeting laid down over some super-cheesy foam-type material that was forever dissolving and getting all up in everything.  Good times.

But the best part – the really really best part for the techies among us, was the grid at the time.  

The grid was literally just that: a grid.  Pipes, spaced on 5’ x 6’ rectangles (except 5’x5’ at the far north and south sides).  No other pipes than that basic 5’6’ grid.  No planks. The grid was hung by chains and not fastened to the walls in any way, so the whole thing swung side to side when you were up there moving around.

Yup – up there moving around.  On no planks.  Oh and also, no access.  How did you get up there?  You climbed up the seats-that-were-boxes on scaffold, you got to the top row and you climbed the railings of the scaffold.  That put your head around grid height, from where you shimmed yourself up onto the grid whereupon you were standing on: a pipe.  Holding onto a chain with each hand.

And if you were carrying, for example, a lighting instrument or a cable or 2 or 3, you were also holding those with one of those same two hands that was holding one of the chains.  So now you made your way across the grid, your hands moving Tarzan-style from one chain to the next (simultaneously holding onto the lighting gear), your feet on - did I mention? – nothing but bare pipes. (1-1/4” Sched 40, G2 couldn’t afford 1-1/2.”)

Maybe it was good we didn’t have much gear.  A bunch of Altman 6” fresnels and some old step-lens Kleigl ellipses that the Guthrie no longer wanted (go figure).  500-watt units replete with that lovely characteristic concentric-dark-circle beam pattern those funky old lights used to put out.  Beam angle?  Can’t say for sure, but they had come from Guthrie and were designed for that type of throw so in that room they put out like a 6-foot circle as I recall.  

24 circuits in the grid (6 circuits each – 1 receptacle per – in each of 4 boxes).  24 dimmers and a Teatronics 2-scene preset, and that was our lighting rig.

I should mention too that at this time, the proscenium arch was filled with a sheetrock wall.  The space behind the arch was the Scene Shop – except for the little bit at what’s now backstage left, that was the Costume Shop.  (The Guthrie 2 was fully staffed mind you: it had its own Equity Company, 2 or 3 Equity Stage Managers, a TD, resident set designer, publicity and financial staff, you name it.  The building was packed with people.)  But the playing area was entirely in front of the proscenium – that didn’t get opened up till later…

So while there wasn’t too much gear and we didn’t have to light behind the arch, the stage configuration changed from show to show so we had our hands full, me plus a couple other folk schlepping lights around, walking on pipes, swinging from chain to chain on the pipe grid. Thus we ventured into the opening production, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, directed by Eugene Lion with set and lights by Richard Hoover, in late January 1976.

The resident company’s – and Eugene Lion’s – opening season didn’t last too long.  Around April or so Michael Langham announced he was terminating the experiment.  The G2’s resident playwright Robert Hellman penned a play entitled Open and Shut, an allegorical tale of the G2’s brief adventures.  Lighting was by Karlis Ozols who brought in a ton of extra gear so a great part of the tech process was orchestrating the physical repatches.  With that, the Guthrie 2’s inaugural season closed in May ‘76, just 5 months after it opened.

But the G2 had left a lasting gift to the Twin Cities performing arts community.  Eugene Lion, with all his nuttiness, had the wonderful and unshakeable conviction that the space should be used by independent local artists, and so The 10:30 Series was born: late-night productions by all manner of artists including Barbra Berlovitz and Domique Serrand, pre-Jeune Lune; Michael Robins’ and Bonnie Morris’ Illusion “Mime” Theater as it was known at the time; Ken DeLap and the Ozone Dance Company which transmuted into Zenon a few years later…  and a most memorable production by Chris Langham, Michael’s son, of Pilk’s Madhouse, which production began at the G2 but by the end, the audience had been moved next door to the Dudley Riggs theater, in what’s now Town Hall Brewery.

But I digress…  turning our attention back to the gird:  Open and Shut featured as a primary design element, a couple dozen straw-filled dummies falling from the grid at intervals throughout the show.  A jerry-rigged maze of string and fishline permeated the grid space (making it even more fun to move around up!), leading back to a platform at what’s now upstage left which was control central for the “dummy fall operator.”

That platform, the first non-pipe structure installed in the grid, to my knowledge remains to this day and became the beginning of the plank system that has served as “catwalks” for the decades since.

After the resident company was disbanded, the space became used more and more by community groups, and the seeds of the present-day “Southern” artistic identity were sown.  The Guthrie also produced a number of plays there and in the process, decided (thank goodness!) that the scaffold seating had to go.  The Guthrie shop constructed some box steel frameworks, used theater seats were discovered at a movie theater that was being demolished, and “permanent” seating was installed.

But with the scaffold gone, there was no way to access the grid so my brother, visiting from New York, and I opened a hole in a sheetrock wall that’s no longer there, and installed a gangplank to get out to the grid.  The catwalk planking came later, after a G2 production left a bunch of lumber it had used for a set, which I single-handedly lugged into the grid and began creating the planking system that has grown somewhat over the years.

Thus the Guthrie 2 “opened and shut,” and paving the way for the next half-century the noble Southern Theater’s life.


Jeff Bartlett has been designing lights and production-managing in the Twin-Cities since his time as an intern at the Guthrie 2.  He is now Production Manager and Lighting Designer at the Weitz Center for Creativity at Carleton College, and was known as the Founding Artistic Director of the Southern from 1981-2008.