Spotlight on Safety for Shows Outdoors
The scene at the Indiana State Fair, where a stage collapsed on Aug. 13, 2011.
Jim Digby, the tour manager for Linkin Park, knows better than most how dangerous a rock ’n’ roll show can be. In 1983 he was a 19-year-old technical director at a new nightclub outside Philadelphia when a piece of equipment he was operating came off a faulty overhead track, plummeted toward the floor and killed a young woman standing just a few feet from him.
“My finger was on the button,” he recalled. “That memory has been buried inside me for years.”
That moment flashed through his mind, he said, when stage rigging collapsed at the Indiana State Fair last year and killed seven people waiting to hear the country duo Sugarland. The accident was one offour that summer in which stages collapsed in high winds. Then this June a drum technician for Radiohead died in Toronto when a stage roof fell before a show, this time in fair weather.
For Mr. Digby the Indiana disaster was a turning point. During the past year he has organized a campaign to improve safety at outdoor events, and, though his group’s efforts are in the early stages, he has garnered support from AEG Worldwide, one of the nation’s largest promoters, as well as from stage manufacturers and leaders of the IATSE, the stagehands’ union.
Mr. Digby’s organization, the Event Safety Alliance, is pushing the outdoor concert industry to adopt national standards not only for stage construction but also for emergency procedures during bad weather and other crises. Those standards would be based on a guidebook published by British workplace-safety authorities that has become widely used in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
“These things always boil down to dollars and cents,” Mr. Digby said. “I don’t think any show has ever intentionally caused an accident that put somebody in a body bag,” he added. “But because the industry doesn’t have any standards and practices, because it doesn’t have a catalog of best practices, because it isn’t regulated, any cowboy can do anything.”
He and a handful of like-minded tour managers have also begun taking unilateral action. Linkin Park and a few other bands, among them Heart and Phish, are now demanding guarantees in their contracts that promoters build stages to stringent engineering standards and draw up emergency plans, spelling out who is responsible for shutting down a show.
These tours have begun hiring meteorologists as well. Last month Linkin Park became the first rock band to have its touring operation receive the National Weather Service’s StormReady seal of approval after the band hired a consulting company, Weather Decision Technologies, to provide warnings on weather hazards. The band has also drawn up thorough plans for weather emergencies, federal officials said. “We are really hoping people will follow their lead,” said Richard Smith, a warning-coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The disaster at the Sugarland concert threw a spotlight on the lack of uniform standards for outdoor events. An independent investigation by an engineering firm found the overhead stage rigging that collapsed was shoddily built and did not meet the standards recommended by Plasa, an association representing stage manufacturers and dealers. A second consultant’s report found the accident was exacerbated by a lack of emergency planning: communications broke down and it was unclear who was in charge during the critical minutes before the storm hit.
For decades outdoor-concert promoters have been largely self-policed, and regulations for temporary stages vary widely from state to state and city to city, promoters say. Some cities, like Chicago and New York, have stringent engineering requirements and inspections by local buildings officials. Even in states with strong regulations enforcement can be spotty, especially at fairs and events put on by small-time promoters.
The Event Safety Alliance grew out of discussions Mr. Digby had with promoters, stage companies and tour managers after last year’s accidents. Besides recommending safety clauses in show contracts, the alliance is drafting standards and practices for outdoor concerts to be put in place by early next year. They are based on the British standards, known as the “purple guide.” Those 200 pages of standards by the Health and Safety Executive are not law, but during the past two decades they have become the de facto template for negotiations between local authorities and promoters over concert permits.