Published April 2022
Whether you have taken a safety class or not, those of us working in the entertainment industry know there are hazards in the environment where we work. In our industry we have heavy things moving all around us, holes we can fall into, heavy machinery zooming by, chemicals we can be exposed to, high voltage running through temporary systems, hazardous weather we are exposed to, and don’t get me started on the sleep deprivation that some of us wear as a badge of honor. There are many tools available to help guide us through mitigation of these hazards. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed one of the most useful tools for everyday use. It is titled the ‘Hierarchy of Hazard Control Pyramid’ illustrated by the graphic above. Using this tool, individuals should be able to find the best solution to every hazard.
To properly use the NIOSH pyramid, you start at the top of the graphic and work your way down. The top categories being the most desirable method of handling the hazard and the bottom being the least desirable method. Using the NIOSH pyramid the categories of hazard control (in order of most to least favorable) is ELIMINATION, SUBSTITUTION, ENGINEERING CONTROLS, ADMINISTRATIVE CONTROLS, and the final line of defense against a hazard is PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT (PPE). This pyramid is very user friendly if you are an industrial hygienist. However, for your average entertainment technician, it is a bit daunting, and honestly unrealistic. In the fast-paced environments where we work, we are much more tolerant of PPE than many other work environments. PPE is often our go-to form of hazard control.
For the purposes of this discussion, we are going to use the slightly more user friendly (and realistic) pyramid that is often used when individuals are talking about fall protection: ELIMINATE, PASSIVE, RESTRAINT, ARREST, and ADMINISTRATIVE. To demonstrate how you might apply the ‘Hierarchy of Hazard Control’ pyramid, we will address three common hazards in our environment using different types of control. The hazards we will be addressing are: (1) an access hole in a theatrical grid, (2) fumes from spray paint, and (3) a forklift zooming from loading docks to performance area. Please note that not all hazards can be addressed on all levels of the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls.
Elimination is always the best thing to do when it comes to a hazard. If you have a hole in a grid, cover it. Do you need spray paint or can you avoid the hazard by using a different less hazardous paint? Is the forklift necessary, or do you have plenty of help and flat level floor to manually push the cases. There are often reasons why we can’t just eliminate the hazards in our examples; maybe you are actively pulling something up through that hole in the grid, or the designer just must have the look that spray paint would give the piece, perhaps the items being moved by the forklift are heavy and have no wheels. Elimination is not always an option, but when possible/practical, it is the nearly 100% effective way of safely handling a hazard.
Passive controls are the next on our list. There are passive controls all around us all the time. A passive control is something that is put in place that we don’t have to activate or interact with for it to mitigate a hazard. For the hole in the grid, this would be railings up around the hole. For spray paint, this could be spray painting only when you are outside or in some other naturally ventilated area. A passive control for the forklift would be to have a separate designated path used only by the forklift.
Restraint is the next level. Restraint is a control that must be engaged for it to mitigate a hazard. Sometimes you’ll hear these controls referred to as “Active Controls”. Many times this level of hazard control involves utilizing PPE to prevent you from interacting with a hazard. An active control for the hole in the grid would be a harness with a restraint on it. This restraint would not allow you to get close enough to the hole to fall through it. For spray paint an active control would be using a spray booth where you have to engage the ventilation system. Flashing lights, audible warning beeper or driver actuated horn could be classified as active controls for the forklift.
Arrest is our favorite form of hazard control in the entertainment industry. This is using your PPE, not to prevent you from interacting with a hazard, but to prevent or at least lessen the injury you will incur if you DO interact with the hazard. We wear our hardhats, safety toe shoes, gloves, safety glasses, etc… All of these items are meant to mitigate your injury, not prevent you from coming into contact with a hazard. If you are on the grid and you are wearing a harness with a shock pack, you can still fall into the hole. When you fall into the hole the harness and shock pack (if properly worn) will catch you and likely will keep you from dying, but you will still probably be injured, albeit to a lesser degree. If you are spray painting in a poorly ventilated area and using a respirator, it will keep you from inhaling the fumes. The Respirator will not however keep the fumes from irritating your eyes, but since the major concern with this hazard is that the fumes are carcinogenic if inhaled, who cares if your eyes are a little watery. The Forklift example has no practical method of arrest reasonably available.
The final hazard control is the least desirable. It is the least desirable because it does very little to actually protect anyone from the hazard. This level of hazard control is Administrative. This is the organization posting signs near the hazard that say “Warning!” or locking doors and only allowing “Authorized Personnel” who are trained to avoid the hazard. Most theatres treat their grid as a controlled access zone. This means that only individuals who are trained to not go near the hole in the grid, are allowed up on the grid. Spray painting doesn’t have an administrative control, unless you consider an employer prohibiting the use of spray paint as a control (but that would be elimination of the hazard). Posting signs that say, “Caution, Forklifts in Use” would be an administrative control of the forklift zooming around. Administrative controls are often an admission that a hazard exists with no effective or practical way to make things safer. Instead, we are just going to make sure everyone knows that the hazard exists and hope that everyone pays attention and no one gets hurt.
The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls Pyramid is a wonderful tool to help us evaluate and select the best method for mitigating a hazard. Unfortunately, even with good tools, there is no magic silver bullet to solve every problem. Hazards will still exist in the entertainment industry and the only way for us to keep ourselves and our coworkers safe is to constantly assess the hazards around us and use the tools at our disposal to creatively and effectively mitigate the hazards.