When all your world's a stage

Have you ever considered the hazards and controls involved with twelve people in gold flight suits tap-dancing on the wings of an airplane over a cloud of fog? This is an issue that our Technical Director, Elissa Horscroft, had to resolve so that this spectacular moment could be included in the curtain call of My One and Only at the Avon Theatre. Try to imagine a business where these kinds of issues are common.

I am surprised and honoured to receive this award because it shines a spotlight on the health and safety work that has been accomplished, both at the Stratford Festival and within the theatre community. After a critical injury involving an actor in 1995, I became very concerned about prevention and, in 1999, with no formal training, I made the transition from Stage Management to Health and Safety. I began my Occupational Health & Safety Certificate at Ryerson at the same time as I began to develop our program. Little did I know my job would grow to include policy development, emergency procedures, drills, training, claims management, Return to Work, public health, wellness and so on for our staff of approximately one thousand, of which 85% are seasonal contract workers.

In my opinion, the most compelling reason for the arts community to focus on health and safety is because we have something very special to protect. Initially, I met with some resistance from people who said that all of this health and safety would destroy art. "We're special, we're different, we're not a factory." I agree. We are not a factory, but it is not acceptable to me that our artists, our craftspeople and our support staff should be any less protected than a factory worker. Quality of life for people who work in the arts is of prime importance.

Creating a program for a theatre involves unique challenges. Artists must take creative risks every day and they must understand when a creative risk crosses the line and becomes a safety risk. We live by the saying “the show must go on” and it can be difficult to get people to speak up about health and safety concerns. My approach is not to say no to anything, but to make sure people stop, identify the risk, get information and support, and take adequate precautions to control that risk before going ahead. Sometimes the controls will be too expensive or time-consuming so another option will be chosen.

Along with the many challenges, I have also been fortunate to take advantage of opportunities – artists, craftspeople and technicians who have shared their tremendous expertise, innovation and dedication to their work. I have a very supportive manager, Shelley Stevenson, Director of Human Resources, and regular access to both senior management and the Board of Governors. We have a large, multi-site Joint Health & Safety Committee which includes dedicated staff members from diverse areas, including twelve Certified Members.

We have many unsung heroes who work hard at keeping our theatres safe. Over the past few years, our Technical Directors, Simon Marsden, Elissa Horscroft and Sean Hirtle, have become increasing skilled in conducting Risk Assessments for their productions. The Facilities Department, led by managers Jeff Heggie and Val Bielecki, keeps on top of hundreds of daily issues, as well as large capital projects. My favorite moments are when I realize that someone “gets it” and they are applying health and safety seamlessly into their daily work and making decisions to protect those around them.

I have been encouraged by Antoni Cimolino, our General Director, to share my work with other theatres. This has included working with Theatre Ontario on an initiative called “To Act in Safety” and recently, with Theatre Alberta, on Safe Stages. I give presentations to theatre students at the University of Waterloo, York University and the National Theatre School and in September 2006, I presented a session at the CSSE conference in Ottawa.

While I am a department of one, I am able to hire people for a few hours or a few months to work on projects; however, most theatres in Canada are not-for profit and very few have a person to take care of Human Resources, let alone Health and Safety. The formal health and safety system can be difficult to navigate and it’s not always clear which legislation applies to us. Conflicting interpretations are not unusual and much detective work is required. Once I understand an issue, I’m glad to share that info with other theatres who can benefit from it.

As a volunteer on advisory committees for the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB), the Ontario Service Safety Alliance and the Ministry of Labour Live Performance Advisory Committee, I’ve had a fascinating opportunity to learn about their different approaches and priorities. I’ve been fortunate to connect with people who have taken an interest in our unique challenges and helped me to move our program forward. These include Mary Wilson in Prevention at WSIB, Jack Minacs at OSSA and Don Brown at the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

While I may be one of the only full-time Health & Safety Managers working in a theatre, I am not the only one striving to improve health and safety. People at non-profit theatres across the country do this work as a part of their “real” jobs. We talk to each other, share information and problem solve together. I have especially appreciated the help of Diane Gibbs, Human Resources Director, and Paddy Parr, Operations Director, at the Shaw Festival. They had experienced a Workwell Audit and have shared resources and ideas with me since I began.

Our program was developed based on the requirements of the Ontario Workwell Audit and, after years of dreading the auditors visit, it was a relief to complete the Risk Management Plan that we were assigned last January. I worry at times that our quest for “compliance” may divert attention from the very real hazards that theatres face which the “system” does not recognize.. The nicest policy manual in the world means nothing if our prevention efforts are not directed at our most serious hazards. That said, I have worked with a Workwell Auditor and two Ministry of Labour Inspectors who have been willing to look up from their audit checklists and green book to really try to understand our hazards and the efforts we are making to control them.

In my view, the theatre, film and TV industry in Ontario needs a safe work association similar to SHAPE (Safety & Health in Arts Production and Entertainment) in British Columbia. SHAPE offers consultants with industry experience, industry-focused research and publications, as well as a Safety Passport System that delivers and records training for this highly mobile workforce. OSSA can help with program basics, IAPA has a superb conference and trade show and CSAO has an excellent Health & Safety Manual, but our issues do not fit neatly into any of the existing associations. I look forward to the day when there will be an organization to support theatres in creating health and safety programs.

Thank you for recognizing that this work is important and that we are making progress. While I still have much to learn and implement, I know that the arts are vital to the heart and soul of our communities. Together, we need to take care of the people who devote their live to creating productions for all of us to enjoy.