May, 2015 Issue

Late Night Musings from the Chair




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Keep It Safe Stupid

by Matthew  A. Gilbertson
Freelance Designer, Technician, Teaching Artist
Scene Shop Manager/Faculty
Anoka Ramsey Community College Coon Rapids, MN.

    I was asked to write an article about my experiences at this year’s National USITT Conference as a part of being awarded the Inaugural Emerging Professional Grant. Before I start my article I wanted to thank the Reading Committee, Donors, The Executive Board, and the members of this Section for creating this grant and recognizing the importance for young professionals’ attendance at this conference. Thank You! This grant allowed me to enjoy an amazing conference and even arrive early to attend a PDW and complete the OSHA 10/General Entertainment Safety course. This course is what I will be writing about.
     We all know and say the age old shop adage, “Keep it simple stupid” and its partner “To every complex problem there is a simple solution”. We live by these when trying to build the impossible on stage. However, what is the cost? What gets sacrificed in the process? Often in the rush to get the job done, safety is one of the things that gets put on the back burner- not major safety concerns, but the little things, like wearing our eyes and ears for every cut, keeping the shop clean as we work, and taking care of our bodies. I would propose that instead of keeping it simple we keep it safe and would like to offer a few simple solutions to that complex problem. These solutions are so easy, they are stupid easy. Little changes every day can lead to a safer workplace for everyone.
     The OSHA 10/General Entertainment Safety course was a refreshing reminder of core foundations of safe practices in the shop. It was a two day, 14 hour course. It covered safety in many areas of the industry we participate in daily. I manage the Scene Shop at Anoka Ramsey Community College and serve as the Technical Director/ Teaching Artist for Maple Grove Senior High School as well. I am also a freelance designer and builder in the Twin City Metro Area. December will mark my 10th anniversary of opening the first show I was paid to Scene Design and manage the build. However, I still do not consider myself a safety expert, and taking one class does not qualify me to declare myself as such. The purpose of this article is not to preach mandates and standards, but offer up some simple examples of practices that I will be implementing in my shop as well as offer some reminders of good practices as learned from this course. I will be talking about the topics of Personal Protective Equipment, Walking Working Surfaces, and Ergonomics as covered by the OSHA 10 course. For more information you can follow up at or the IATSE Training Trust at
     Keep it Safe Stupid: Wear your eyes and ears. Did you know it is required by the employer to provide PPE for their employees? The most common examples of PPE that should be in every shop and used daily are eye and ear protection. Do you have enough in your shop to have every student or employee protected? What about variety to suit the needs of your staff and students; styles that go over the glasses, sizes to fit different genders, body types, and age? At both ARCC and MGSH I am implementing a new policy that mandates every person in the shop wear safety glasses, all the time. Previously, the policy was that you needed to wear them if you were using a saw, sander, router, grinder, etc; or working around one. However, wood and sparks fly all over and everyone is susceptible to eye dangers, not just the operator. In order to implement this I had to take an inventory of what we had and purchase more PPE.
    I am also becoming more conscious about the noise level in and around the shop. I have worked with many older people in shops who have not had the awareness of the long term effects of loud sustained noises. My father got himself a set of hearing aids for his 50th Birthday. He spent hours over a band saw for many years without ear protection and cites this for his hearing loss and Tinnitus. Ear protection is something that every student in my shops has access to. Students are required to wear them when using or in close proximity to a loud tool. But what about everyone else in the shop? The intensity of the volume of that tool does not dissipate nearly as much as one would assume it would over the distance of the shop. Here is an eye opening experiment. Download a dB meter on your phone (there are many free downloads) and walk around the shop some day while work is being done. Place it next to the circular saw, the radial arm saw, or an impact driver putting in 3” screws (this one will surprise you) then walk to the other side of the shop and see the difference. I was shocked to see how relatively little the needle fell from being right on top of the tool versus being across the shop. As a result if we have a day where there is more than one power tool being used for an extended period of time we all will wear ears.
     Keep it Safe Stupid: Be aware of your walking working surfaces. The Walking Working Surfaces section of the course covered ladders, good practices for pits and traps, general scaffolding, platforms, and much more. I want to talk about a few simple practices to make venues safer. At ARCC we have a mechanical orchestra pit. Resident Scene Designer Peter Lerohl utilizes this function in almost every show. Even if there is not an orchestra we will commonly build out a custom apron as part of the design. The outcome results in a more interesting design than the stock curve but also introduces an exposed edge. So, we do what we can to minimize the hazard. We install the extension in one shop day and at night put out the ghost light. Good enough? Well, let’s say that there is room for improvement. The ghost light is a great start. It is not just for keeping the theatre ghosts at bay. It is practical as well. Often, when we as shop folk lock the doors and leave at 5 or 6 or midnight, we think no one else will be in there until we return in the morning. This is not the case at either of the schools I work. At ARCC a member of facilities vacuums the area, throws out garbage, and cleans bathrooms every night. She does not spend much time on stage but if for some reason she needed to be on stage, I would want her to be able to see the change in the space before she even turns on a house light. An additional simple solution we are working to implement is to have a safety chain that runs the full width of the stage. We have access to the stage from the house by both sides of the stage so our safety chain will have to stretch across those entrances as well to be most effective. Pit and trap management is important to keeping our spaces safe.
     Another area covered under the walking working surfaces section is housekeeping. According to the information shared at the training, slips, trips, and falls are one of the leading cause of workers compensation claims in the country. This is such an easy fix. Keep your space clean and neat. Try this: in the morning when you get to the venue, make your coffee then go take a look at your shop. How was it left? Is there a clear path of egress in the event of a fire? Are there tools laying out? Are the floors clean and clear of dust or debris? I am just as guilty as the next shop dog to make the call at 4:45 to finish the project and not leave time for clean up. I mean, we will be just making the same mess tomorrow, right? At the end of the day cleanliness is not always a priority. However, it should be. A clean floor prevents trips and slips. A clear path of egress is essential for a safe exit in the event of an emergency. Those solutions take little time but have a great effect on preventing injury.
     Keep it Safe Stupid: Lift with your knees not your back. Now, there's phrase I have heard all my life. I remember hearing it from Grandpa on the farm, in High School Shop class, and now it resonates in an OSHA 10 class. It must be important. According to the OSHA 10 class packet “Proper ergonomics can decrease the number of work days missed due to injury, improve quality of work, reduce fatigue and discomfort, and increase productivity”. But proper ergonomics goes beyond lifting with your knees. We often forget that ergonomics follows us into the office as well. When I am designing a show I spend many hours looking at a screen. There are a few good pointers to use while working at the computer for long periods of time. First, make sure the alignment of your computer is correct. The top of the monitor casing should be 2”-3” above eye level. You should have a comfortable chair, and take breaks. The healthy rule of thumb for screen time is the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This gives your eyes a break and your clicking finger some time to stretch out. The text speaks to taking breaks as well. It says “In regards to ergonomics, frequent short breaks are better than infrequent long breaks.” So walk away for a bit, get your coffee, or better yet a glass of water, and take a break. You will be able to work longer and be more comfortable and maybe even a little less cranky if you do.
     Safety should be the number one concern in our schools and workplaces. The overriding concept I took away from the training session was that no job or show is worth getting hurt or worse. Taking just a little more time to do small things like always wearing eye protection, or getting the taller ladder when the short one is just not quite tall enough, or even asking oneself if the way I have always done something is the best or safest way of doing it will lead to a safer, more productive and healthier work experience. The little things matter. By evaluating current practices, implementing new policies, and leading by example, we can work to Keep it Safe Stupid.